Muzzling wild dogs
Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
That portion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution apparently no longer applies to Marion County.
That, at least, is the upshot of county counselor Brad Jantz’s overly bureaucratic advice to commissioners last week.
Citizens, he told commissioners, have no right to come before them and complain about what government employees do as part of their official duties. He calls that “job performance” and classifies it as a “personnel matter.”
We agree government employees shouldn’t have to give up their right to confidentiality about personnel matters. If a county employee needs to take some time off to deal with a personal matter or wants to change the beneficiary on his or her insurance, the public has no right to know or comment about it — unless it impacts how that member of the public is served by the official.
Whether criticisms leveled at the policies of county engineer Brice Goebel were right or wrong isn’t important. Truth is, upon reviewing the full list of complaints that citizen Linda Peters leveled at him, we regard many of them as wrongheaded micromanagement, delivered with a tone bordering on rude and insulting.
But the complaints were not about something private like whether he stays late, leaves early or has halitosis — none of which, of course, is true.
They were about his decisions and policies in his official capacity. As such, they should not be protected under an overly broad umbrella of “job performance issues.”
It wasn’t his personal behavior that was questioned. It was his policies and actions. That’s fair game, whether he’s the county engineer, the director of the FBI or the U.S. secretary of state.
All are appointed government officials. They’re not rank-and-file civil service employees. They’re responsible department heads. And their actions and attitudes are fair game for public comment and criticism.
If we forbid any criticism of all such officials on the grounds that it is “job performance” or a “personnel matter,” we’d have dozens of hours of blank screens on most cable news networks each week. That might be a good thing, but it wouldn’t be in keeping with the traditions of American democracy.
In recent years at the local level, bureaucrats and lawyers have slowly but surely chipped away at the level of accountability public employees must be held to. They apparently fear that such employees will sue or quit, or they worry that the same level of accountability may be expected of them in the performance of their official duties.
Whatever the reason for this overly protective attitude toward public officials, it’s clear that becoming a public official, whether by election or by accepting a public job, brings with it an expectation that you might be criticized — even wrongly.
It’s virtually impossible to slander or libel any sort of public figure. Even if what you say is completely wrong, it must be proved that you knew it was wrong and were saying it for malicious purposes.
We greatly sympathize with the concerns of farmers, but we are aghast at the degree to which micromanagement of a handful of rock roads used by a small segment of the county’s population has seized so much of the commission’s attention. We’re particularly concerned that this appears to be an almost scripted campaign seemingly organized by commissioner Dianne Novak.
What citizen Linda Peters said at the county commission meeting last week may have been overly dramatic, and we may question some if not most of her facts and opinions. But in American democracy, there is no such thing as a wrong opinion that should never be heard.
We imagine some contend it’s none of Linda Peter’s business; that if she wants to comment on county business she should go to the voters and seek election to the position she once held on the commission. But no longer being an elected official should never disqualify anyone from having an opinion. And current officials shouldn’t try to block her.
Being an American and especially accepting a role as a public official means accepting that you may be criticized in ways that you consider unjust. It means not just accepting that criticism but also defending the right of citizens to deliver it.
We disagree with many of the things Linda Peters said, but we will defend to the death her right to have said them.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified March 5, 2020