, Salem, MA

October 22, 2013

Our view: Official silence does not serve the public good

The Salem News

---- — A person who does not have the courage to speak his or her mind has no business holding public office.

There is a disturbing trend among elected officials across the region to adopt self-imposed gag orders, refusing to discuss or speak to the general public on matters of concern to the community. Instead, they defer to a board chairman or paid administrator to speak for them. More often than not, those designated speakers have nothing to say, as well.

These officials justify giving their constituents the silent treatment with the need for board unity or to guard against liability concerns. Nonsense. They are instead denying their constituents the full representation in local government that they were elected to provide.

If officials are unwilling to speak to those who elected them, voters should replace them with others who better understand the function of representative government.

Reporter John Toole of our sister paper The Eagle-Tribune found a number of examples of elected officials who have nothing to say. In Derry, N.H., the Town Council will not discuss details of a decision to terminate the town administrator without cause. In the Timberlane Regional School District in Plaistow, N.H., it is policy that only the chairman officially speaks for the School Board outside meetings. In that town, library trustees refer questions to their chairman.

“That’s not right,” Windham (N.H.) Taxpayers Coalition board member Ken Eyring told Toole. “They are working for the people. When people clam up and shield information from the public, they are not performing their duties with the public’s good in mind.”

“These are elected officials doing the people’s business,” Granite State Taxpayers chairman Jim Adams said.

In Derry, the behavior of the town administrator has been the talk of the town. John Anderson faces two misdemeanor charges over an incident at his home in which police say he exposed himself and masturbated in front of a satellite television salesman.

Anderson, 50, was initially placed on paid leave following the July 12 incident. After state police issued an arrest warrant, the council voted on Aug. 20 to place him on unpaid leave.

Last week, the Town Council voted not to renew Anderson’s contract and to pay him severance. They also returned him to paid leave until Oct. 25 — the day his three-year contract with the town ends.

The council had imposed a gag order on itself and will not reveal any details of the severance package or discuss its decision.

A former town councilor, Kevin Coyle, has filed a Right-to-Know Law request with the town to get details of the severance arrangement, which he estimates at $43,000.

Derry Councilors Al Dimmock and Phyllis Katsakiores told Toole that it’s difficult for them as elected officials to remain mum on a significant local issue.

Katsakiores said some people have approached her in church to ask about the situation.

“It is really frustrating because I think people have a right to know,” she said. “I don’t like this being kept behind closed doors. It just really bothers me. The taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on.”

Then speak up.

Falling back on “gag orders” and “policy” is just another way for elected officials to dodge their responsibility to the people who elected them.

Those who will not stand up and defend the right of the public to know what’s going on in their government do not deserve the trust of the people — or their votes.