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February 13, 2009
County Officials and Public Communications
The background for today's column comes from the following letters to the editor of the Frederick Gazette, which were published 2/11/2009:
Newspapers lower the standard of public debate - by Dean Minnich, vice president of the Carroll County Board of County Commissioners
quote "...-mails, blogs, partisan Web sites and campaign speeches are not the best way to discuss issues as important as the siting and construction of a waste-to-energy facility."
Elected official's e-mail presents more problems than you know - by Thomas Lynch, Miles and Stockbridge, Frederick (no relation)
quote "...By creating enough turmoil with hundreds and hundreds of e-mails exchanged over many months (particularly where the other elected officials choose to immerse themselves without advice from county lawyers), opponents can delay the decision-making process."
A community is strengthened when a contentious debate ensues on vital public issues, such as recently has transpired in Frederick and Carroll counties over the issue of consideration of an incinerator. But the local Gazette carried the opinions of two of our august community leaders calling for shutting down participation in lengthy group email chains where a broad spectrum of public officials, government staff, and public advocates of alternative waste and recycling have questioned and countered a deliberative process that has often seemed opaque, resistant to query, and set in its direction for some time, prior to a more general public awareness of the planning.
At times, the heat, and the attacks have certainly flared from both sides; at times, the mindsets of each viewpoint have been reconsidered against opposing facts and approaches. Overall, the only winners have been the emphasis on transparency and furtherance of the public good. This does not sit well with the powerful and connected arbitrators of the status quo and the bluestockings of public civility, whatever
Were a few, poorly considered, or purposefully challenging, remarks extant in the exchanges - of course, but that's as much a part of life as the more normative civil debate that transpired within the same chains of messages, and the trust in the public ability to filter the righteousness and intents of the dialogue are basic to democracy. In truth, a strong, lengthy discussion in all forums ensures the contention and final consensus will reflect our best values and the public good. Unfortunately these two observers seem to prefer the oblige noblesse sanctorum of the past, when the godly rulers had no worry by such commoners who might oppose their dictates.
As Patrick Henry so succinctly summed it up: "Give me liberty, or give me death!"
The public should remember that in the entire course of human history, leaders have engaged in every from of human communication and decision making and influence, on the surface, as vehicles of mass communication and private discourse, none of the methods are wrong.
Our Shakespearean plays show more political savvy than these leaders, our Roman and Greek heritage abounds in asides, smoke filled rooms, conspiracies, emotions, irrationality, even unbridled violence, bribery, pillow talk, and many other influences on the ultimate community choices of public officials. While we may identify these as sometimes leading to very bad results, the mere functioning of the communication tools
We cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore new technology in public communication any more than we can impose eugenics and halt the nearly random combination of DNA when individuals mate and have children. It simply defies a natural progression and utility. If they feel that emails between public officials and citizens are a dangerous precedent, then why allow the telephone, fax, letters, or simple conversations on the public street? The average barbershop, or the agora, are not bothered by a bit of honest rivalry and baiting and verbal fisticuffs, even our Congress has been known to utilize these less than gentlemanly means and manners in their sausage making from time to time.
When calls are made for this type of concern, there is usually a desire to assert some artificial control, to limit debate, to impose an authority and viewpoint. These draconian solutions lead to bad end results. They are often the tools of human tyranny. It is worth noting that neither of these figures has found fault in County Commissioner web pages on Frederick County government's servers that publicize their personal views on the debates on immigration and illegal aliens, nor asserting, against a supra majority of the world's scientists, that global warming is a fraud!
Frankly, the magnitude of this decision, and the long history, the many questions and concerns, the points raised by many within these communications and the responses to them by officials, have been of paramount importance to the debate and the public good, no matter anyone's personal opinion on the matter of the incinerator. I would fear seeing our public decision move forward without every opportunity to engage in such a dialogue, facilitated in every manner, whether base or of theimpeccable class and restraint of these enlightened and distinguished community conveners.
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