THE ISSUE: Commissioner Smith urges policy to silence county employees.
OUR OPINION: A really bad idea.
In the aftermath of the disastrous decision by some commissioners to spout political rhetoric as a reason to overrule the head of the library system on purchasing the New York Times digital subscription, commissioner Jimmy T. Smith added to the commission’s image problem by criticizing a county employee for providing factual information about the emails the visitor bureau had received following national news reports of the decision.
Smith wrote to county manager Randy Oliver that it was inappropriate for the employee to provide information to the reporter and urged development of a county policy that would require all county staffers to direct all comments to the county spokeswoman.
The news story about his comments drew some insightful comments from readers of the online Chronicle. As one wrote: “The Commissioners say something incredibly stupid and a national uproar ensues. Then they blame the local newspaper for reporting what they said and silence a government official for admitting to the damage the Commissioners stupidity caused.”
Another said “So Smith hasn’t learned from the loose lips of Kitchens or Carnahan? The ones touting ‘shut up’ need to say that while looking in a mirror.”
While these may be harsh judgments, they do speak to an underlying truth that the original story was generated by inappropriate comments during a commission meeting, and the commissioner urging a policy to limit the speech of county employees is the commissioner who most frequently criticizes county employees in comments to the media.
While we understand that every county employee cannot be a spokesperson for the county or its policies, and we fully appreciate the work of the county spokeswoman in providing information about county issues or policies, we think Smith’s proposal goes too far. What Smith suggests smacks more of silencing information that elected officials do not want printed than of assuring the public receives accurate and timely information about county activities.
While some questions such as those regarding major policy issues should go through a coordination and review process, department managers and others with significant responsibilities should be free to provide basic factual information about areas under their supervision without worry that a county commissioner will take exception.
These are, after all, employees who work on behalf of county residents, and who are paid by taxes levied on these residents.
In a time when there is already distrust of government, efforts to further limit information going from government to citizens — regardless of their intentions — only add to distrust and further erode public confidence. This is not a good idea.