Opinion

Editorial: Conduct code hurts public

A well-meaning effort to compel Oak Harbor City Council members to subscribe to a code of conduct is misguided.

Elected officials are not city employees, but rather representatives of the people. The people want to hear what their elected officials have to say, and the people can’t do their job — elect intelligent and responsive representatives — in an atmosphere where an elected official is afraid to speak up.

Councilmen Paul Brewer and Eric Gerber are known to speak out of turn at times, particularly from the mayor’s perspective. They occasionally see conspiracies where there may not be any.

Brewer and Gerber worry that a code of conduct threatens to make the independent voices on the council mind their manners. If this happened, the council could become a panel that does nothing but rubber stamp proposals from the mayor or the majority.

The fact is, there are already far too many restraints on what government business can be conducted in private and what elected officials can say in public. This state’s oxymoronic “open public meetings act” in fact closes the public out of most meaningful discussions.

Public employee performance generally can’t be discussed in public. Employee costs account for some 80 percent of the typical public payroll. That’s why the public at large has no idea who the good or poor public employees are, whether they run infrastructure for the city or teach our kids in the public schools.

Threatened lawsuits, before they are filed, can also be discussed in private. These legal actions tend to point out incompetent or questionable behavior by public employees, and yet the public seldom hears of them. If a complaint has merit, it’s usually settled out of court.

Potential land acquisition can also be legally discussed in private. This is of high interest to the public, but the “open public meetings act” exempts these discussions, too, from public oversight.

Union negotiations are also conducted in private. How much extra money and benefits are employees demanding, what will this cost the city or school district, and what public services will be hurt if the demands are met? The public is left out of these discussions, too, and is left ignorant of disciplinary actions taken against public employees.

Public officials are often afraid to speak up out of fear of violating the open public meetings act, or running afoul of an extensive body of law dealing with slander and libel.

The fact is, the open, energetic, robust debate envisioned and practiced by our founding fathers doesn’t exist any more. Public meetings are generally boring and uninformative, lacking the spice of free and spirited debate. Thomas Jefferson would be found dozing in the corner if he had to attend a school board or city council meeting. He’d probably wake up only when Brewer and Gerber are talking, hoping they’ll say something interesting.

Neither Oak Harbor nor any other governing body needs any more restraints on how elected officials express and conduct themselves in public. It’s un-American, or at least it should be.

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