Natural friction over information

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Government, public, press often operate at cross purposes on issues of transparency.

THE GENERAL PUBLIC usually has very little interaction with top elected and appointed government officials. One of the functions of the press is to pay attention to what's going on with government and ask the questions citizens might if they were present and able.

So journalists insist on reasonable access to decision-makers and push back when government officials at any level appear to be attempting to "manage" who may speak or provide a greater or lesser degree of information.

Which brings us to recent discussions involving the School District of Beloit Board of Education about the flow of information and who may or may not be authorized to speak to media.

THE PROPOSAL would designate the board president and superintendent as the authorized spokespeople for media contact.

On its face, that's not particularly objectionable. For first contact the appropriate lane when posing board-related questions would be the board president, and for administration-related matters the logical choice is the superintendent.

It's all in how such a plan comes together in practice that merits a bit of caution and, perhaps, skepticism.

We've seen this sort of thing before. In the Beloit Turner district not long ago the board president took angry exception to another board member speaking out with the public in dissent over a decision the board had made. The board even considered making it policy that members were expected to unite behind board decisions, even if they disagreed with them.

We can see why some - particularly those in support of a given decision - would want other board members to fall in line and voice no objections. But in a democratic sense, that's just not how it works.

MEMBERS OF THE Beloit school board - or, for that matter, members of the Beloit City Council - are individually elected at-large in the community. Each member not only has a certain constituency that voted for them, but also represents the entire community by virtue of the at-large voting system.

In other words, each elected official is an independent free agent - not simply part of the whole. To us, that means each person should act individually within their best judgment to represent the diverse opinions of the community. Any expectations about falling in line, deferring to others or muzzling themselves runs counter to their obligation of democratic independence.

The new superintendent, Stanley Munro, said, "I want to look at how we will be perceived and show the community we are united. It's not about hiding anything. It's about showing it's a well run board and district."

WE GET IT, but any move that could exert pressure on other elected board members to hold their tongue goes too far. Democracy can be messy - sometimes a conflicted cacophony of voices. Sorting all that out isn't necessarily the most efficient, let alone united, way to get things done.

Yet that's how the Founders envisioned a country that governs itself. People elect representatives. Those representatives may or may not agree on the right path forward. So they scrap it out until a workable compromise that can garner majority support is reached. Those free agents - elected to be independent and advocate for differing viewpoints - express the feelings of the people. And there's nothing to stop them - nor should there be - from continuing to voice their reservations, even after a majority decision is reached. Because, remember, a later vote or a future board could reverse course.

Here's a promise. We respect the lanes that would make a board president and superintendent the go-to individuals for many, but not all, questions. We also respect the independence of every other elected official and, whenever we believe it's appropriate, we will ask them for information or opinions. If they take seriously their obligations as free agents and independent representatives of the people, they'll choose not to button their lips.

A FINAL WORD: It's worth mentioning another trending government strategy to manage - read: limit and control - the flow of information to the people. More and more government organizations are spending significant sums of taxpayer money to hire mouthpieces, generally called public information officers. The intent is to funnel all press inquiries to that person, shielding top elected and appointed officials from facing direct questions and follow-ups most of the time. An official narrative is developed and fed to inquiring reporters. Everyone else - appointed or elected - is expected to be inaccessible, and information is controlled. This newspaper - and most journalistic organizations - chafes at such structures and works hard to penetrate the information barriers, with varying degrees of success. Readers should know all this, that the government agencies citizens pay for deliberately strive to control and dribble out only that information that suits them. If that bothers you, if you are uncomfortable with government making information less transparent, here's a suggestion: Support local journalism, with your voice and your dollars.

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