April 21, 2005

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if government for the people, by the people, meant that the average person actually knew what the government was doing? Lately, itís become painfully obvious to me that, a lot of people know very little about what their elected officials are doing.

Granted, many of those ignorant of current events, are lacking the knowledge by choice. But what worries me are those who want to know what government is up to, but who are not getting that information. Iím not overly concerned that we have bad officials or that anyone has anything to hide. My anxiety deals more with the fact that itís my job to inform the public of what is going on with their city council, water board, school district, hospital, care centerÖ

A few weeks ago many media outlets across the state commemorated Sunshine Law Week. The Sunshine Law governs public meetings and maintains open records for government to allow the public to keep track of their leadersí decisions and how their tax dollars are spent.

At this time I was considering a similar editorial, announcing the newspaperís new policy of publishing minutes from every board meeting we could get our hands on. Call me lazy, call me less than excited about hunting down all of the records, or call me reluctant to make these organizations feel like I was checking up on them. I guess you can call me whatever you want, because Iím now issuing the pledge to regularly publish the official minutes from:

the SCR-I and Gorin R-III school boards; the Memphis City Council and board meetings from Downing, Arbela, Granger and Gorin; Scotland County Memorial Hospital, Scotland County Care Center, Scotland County Health Department and the Scotland County CPWSD#1, plus any other governmental decision makers that spend your tax money or control other aspects of your life.

Again, let me stress that Iím not suggesting that any of these boards are doing anything wrong, I just donít want to hear the public complaining about new policy and saying ďI never heard anything about it until it was too late.Ē

Iíve heard that on numerous occasions and I must say that it makes me feel quite guilty. Itís the duty of the newspaper to keep the public informed. When a decision is made and the public is uninformed, I take responsibility. Thatís why I hope all of these boards will cooperate and make every effort to submit minutes in a timely and regular manner to allow us to keep the public in the know.

At the Thursday meeting of the Memphis City Council I heard numerous citizens question why the city was raising water rates? Why hadnít the city and the rural water worked together to solve the supply issues that ultimately led to rural water switching to Lake Rathbun and the city having to impose a significant rate hike?

It wasnít the first time Iíve heard a newspaper reader ask that question. The readers didnít know, because the newspaper editor didnít know. I hadnít attended the meetings and hadnít requested the minutes. Itís my fault you didnít know, and I apologize.

Iím not commenting on the decisions, or the process, simply the fact that I let you down as a newspaper editor and Iím going to try not to let that happen in the future. This editorial is not meant to suggest that any official was hiding anything, or acted inappropriately in any matter. As far as I know these were public meetings.

I only single out the water issue, because it is in the news this week. Iíve had the same questions posed about decisions made by just about every governmental entity in the community at some point or other.

My wife and family would disown me if I pledged to attend every single board meeting every month, so letters will be going out in the next week or so, requesting regular submission of meeting minutes. If there are boards that I have not listed that you would like to read about, please let me know.

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