Gagging Elected Officials Makes For Bad Policy

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In essence, the Payson school district board has placed a gag order on board members, just when the citizens are seeking education reform. Elected board members should be at the center of this discussion. Obviously, this board doesn’t think so. And that’s a shame.

Unfortunately, the Star Valley Town Council has taken similar steps. The new Star Valley mayor now refuses to answer reporters’ questions, saying all comment should come from the town manager.

Both these decisions represent the abandonment of a vital public trust. How can voters know what their elected representatives think, if they refer all questions to the superintendent or town manager?

It is true that board members can violate the open meeting law if they count votes before a meeting. But that certainly doesn’t mean elected officials can’t talk to citizens, teachers, parents or reporters.

And yet, incredibly enough, that is just what the school board’s new unwritten policy seems to say.

The open meeting law does prevent public officials from making decisions privately, but nothing in it limits the right and responsibility of elected officials to discuss and comment on issues important to the public.

Of course, in reality, elected officials get much of their information from paid administrators. So how can they discuss issues with even the superintendent without violating the open meeting law, giving this absurd interpretation. In fact, the new policy makes no sense at all, from a legal point of view.

It’s purely political. It assumes that a paid administrator can speak for five elected board members.

That’s absolute bunk.

And it is double bunk to suggest that the board members should speak with one voice and not express differing views. In fact, the superintendent actually had the nerve to say that elected school board members are not like elected congressmen — obligated to represent the voters. In fact, they’re exactly the same in this regard. School board members have an obligation to study the issues and form their own opinions — even when those views differ from one another or the superintendent.

Consider the ridiculous details of the policy. If you’ve got a question for a school board member, you’re supposed to get it put on the agenda, sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Bunk on top of bunk.

Moreover, the new unwritten policy actually violates the Payson school district’s existing written policy, which encourages board members to talk with citizens and the media.

Policy makers must express their opinions in a variety of forums on issues that might be coming before them. It is in the public’s interest for elected officials to be challenged by voters and by the media. It is our job to ask elected officials and administrators questions on behalf of our readers.

The superintendent doesn’t set district policy — the board does. He has no right to speak for the board — since they’re in charge. Talking to the superintendent or town manager does not get to the root of who is making public policy, which is set by the elected officials.

Serving as a school board member or town councilor is a tough job. There is little, if any, pay. The elected officials must give up their time to serve the communities for a better good. They make decisions that affect the lives of community members. We admire people who have become elected officials.

But they campaigned for the job and so put themselves in the hot seat by making decisions and pushing their agenda forward. We expect that our elected officials will be knowledgeable about the decisions they will be making. If this is putting elected officials on the hot seat, then so be it.

Formally agreeing to not answer questions from the public is the worst public policy decision we have ever seen elected officials make.

Time will tell if this truly is their policy — but we are not going to quit asking questions. If the board members want one terrible recent example of what happens when the board members stop communicating with the public, they need only look to the defeat of the bond override election as a result of the failure of the district to communicate with the voters.

Voters did not understand why the district needed the money and the board provided no leadership — but at least they didn’t have to answer the public’s questions. That bond money defeat should have been taken as a no confidence vote by the school district’s elected officials and administrators, and this new “unwritten” gag order will not help restore the public’s confidence.

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