Editorial: Government functions better when you provide the facts

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

It’s nothing new among many of the governmental entities on Whidbey Island. Over the years, a lack of effective communication has been the root of many of the biggest controversies on the island, from oak tree chopping to Island Transit budget woes to sewage plant costs.

People want — and deserve — direct, timely, easy-to-understand information, not facts obfuscated by government jargon and acronyms. We want elected and top officials to speak for themselves, not hide behind “spokespeople” and milquetoast press releases when the questions are tough.

Clearer information, for example, could have avoided the concern that led to an online petition regarding COVID-related information. The petition demands an emergency meeting of the Island County Board of Health to address a recent “spike” in the number of cases. It claims the county Public Health department was slow in sharing information about the increase and that data wasn’t being correctly reported to the state, which the county says isn’t factual.

The problem is caused, in part, by the complexities of coronavirus information and the fact that county, state and national sources for data have different timelines and criteria.

To complicate things, the county’s website isn’t exactly user-friendly and getting the right person on the phone can be a challenge.

The county keeps an updated count of cases on the website and sends out emails with the information, but they don’t clearly state the number of new cases.

Lawsuits were recently filed against the City of Oak Harbor and the Island County Sheriff’s Office. Officials remained quiet, citing the outdated idea that they can’t comment on litigation for fear of increasing liability.

Nowadays, many top attorneys no longer give this strict advice to governmental or corporate clients because they understand the importance of public relations, if not transparency.

Disagreeing with the premise of a lawsuit or supporting deputies who risked their lives in an attempt to save someone will not increase liability but would speak volumes to the community.

An Oak Harbor councilman recently harshly criticized “City Hall” and its culture for a snafu related to a group’s request for a permit to put up a shed. In response to a News-Times request for a response, the mayor and city administrator chose to have the city’s public relations person send out an oblique statement.

Hiring a public relations person might be a step in the right direction, communication-wise, but not if the position is used for spinning instead of dispensing facts.

The officials making decisions need to grow a backbone and speak for themselves — and not put a staff person in the middle — when it comes to things like political disagreements among elected city officials.