Issues with board meetings, media coverage
To the Editor:
I went to a recent Peru selectmen's meeting with a plan to make a few simple suggestions about corrections that needed to make the minutes of the week before factually accurate and complete.
After the selectmen made the corrections, I would sit quietly and wait until the public comment session, make few statements about the Maine Freedom of Access Act, get the name of the attorney for the Town of Peru, and leave.
The meeting started with the chairman of the board saying all public comments would be heard during the public comment portion of the meeting. He said they had a long agenda and comments would not be acceptable, unless the commenter had a personal stake in a topic.
Thus, I was not allowed to speak before the board vote to approve the minutes, minutes that contained erros, errors enought to make me doubt the validity and reliability of the Peru record system for selectmen's meetings. I was denied the joy of seeing incorrect information promptly and properly and publicly corrected.
It is difficult for me to understand people who fail to recognize that information asymmetrics are power asymmetrics, power asymmetrics that too many people in the past experienced in bad ways in small Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee towns.
As I waited to speak about how economic development was related to open government, I wondered if Chairman Tim Holland -- a sworn officer of the law employed by the Oxford County Sheriff's Office -- was aware that endorsing false information and violating any due process right was setting himself up to be impeached as a witness in future criminal or civil actions when he testifies under oath. Integrity, accuracy, fairness and common sense are not hats that you choose to wear depending on your moods and biases, or length of an agenda.
Sitting quietly, my thoughts tumbled around because I know what happens when a law enforcement officer crosses over huge flourescent red lines that separates the rule of law from the rule of force. I've seen the red line crossed in places like Mexico, the country, where policement seem to be wearing jumping shoes that makes jumping the rule of law so effortless that they cease to know they are in a place where no law enforcement officer should be and where no citizen of a democracy could feel comfortable. It's a style of law that was popular in the south after the civil war and contributed to weak, sometimes negative, economic development.
Then, still sitting quietly, selecting words to speak in the public comment session, selecting the words as if I were carefully selecting five smooth stones to defend against human rights violations, strtegically placing a few emphatic "hells" and "damns" in my more elegant sentences, telling to all that could hear that the asymmetries of information between the selectmen and plain old ordinary citizens were parallel and equivalent to the asymmetries of pain that exist between a battered wife and her battering husband, the selectmen returned from their executive session in the other room and the meeting was opened for public comments.
I stood and made wavering voice points about the accuracy of the old minutes and the accuracy of the new minutes. I made the request that the minutes of the meeting relating to Fire Chief Hussey be assigned to someone other than his wife, and requesting several times for the board to provide me with the name of their attorney.
I even said that attorneys are able to resolve problems. But the board, an elected board, could no more hear me or reply to my formal letter of complaint than they could see the lady sitting next to me. As I sat down, knowing that I'd made and preserved my objections to the incorrect information in the minutes, errors that are so severe that Robert's Rules of Order grants privilege to speak without a motion or a second when these errors occur, knowing also the problems of conflict of interest was improperly ignored, it felt good to have offered some healthy alternatives to correcting those violations.
Then the lady sitting next to me told the board, in a soft voice, that it is the law that public notice be given prior to a meeting of the Board of Selectmen and no public notice was given for this meeting.
Selectman Secretary Hussey replied that the meeting was posted on the door of the town office and then said, with what sounded like condescension tones -- that she would call the lady before every meeting to let her know there was a meeting.
The lady did not become flustered or hesistant, she remained firm, repeating her statement that prior public notice is required. She had a copy of the newspaper, Rumford Falls Times, to show how other towns put prior public notice of selectmen's meetings in the newspaper.
Chairman Holland said that he had no control over what the newspaper published. The lady was wonderful, repeating what she said about the law. Chairman Holland, who might have listened more closely to the words and the tones of the lady as she stood her ground, said he would check into it, with doubt in his voice. The lady spoke in a whisper to me that she felt bad, that she had failed.
And now, almost a full week after the meeting, I wonder if the lack of coverage by the local newspaper reporter of citizen complaints to the Board of Selectmen's public discussions are not contributory to the Board of Selectmen feeling they can act with impunity.
It may be time to start discussions in the community about media ethics, media responsibility. Do we want to have the State of Maine Archives and the different historical societies relying on incorrect information, information that is easily corrected, for writing and preserving our histories?
Do we want the newspapers to claim they write the first draft of history and it's a rough first draft they are too busy to correct? We know first hand -- from our past and from seeing how other countries officially ignore, and create, inaccurate information today -- how inaccurate official information weakens our community more than cheap rot gut liquor and maybe, just maybe, it's time to organize a news ethics and news responsibility conference and invite respected journalists and leading publishers and plain consumers to talk with and to us about the place, the function, of news media, traditional and new, in building and enhancing capacity in our communities.