Editorial: Ethics Policies That Encourage Closed Government Are Unethical

 11/30/2016 - 23:31

Not everything you read in The Saline Post is true.

We go to city council meetings and school board meetings and try our best to accurately report on the proceedings.

Sometimes we make mistakes. At times, the things we report aren’t true because the things said in a meeting aren’t true.

In July, The Saline Post reported that Police Chief Larry Hrinik appeared before council to speak about all the improvements taking place in the areas of policy and communication at the Saline Police Department. After legal battles between police officers and the city, the city council had hired an independent contractor to interview people and make recommendations for improving police department operations and morale.

Communication was considered a problem in the police department. At that July council meeting, Hrinik was updating council on the department’s efforts to fix those problems. Bob Conradi reported that Hrinik said “communication within the force is improving with rollcalls at every shift, weekly updates and a monthly meeting of the sergeants with the chief.”

weekly briefing.jpg

Except that wasn’t true according to people I spoke with, who didn’t want to be named. Another city employee texted me a photo that showed the most recent weekly briefing was in April. That means there hadn’t been a weekly briefing in three months. (This is not meant to discredit Chief Hrinik. He has his detractors, but he also has officers who swear by him.)

The employees were afraid for their jobs and obviously didn’t want to go on the record. So, there was no story. I informed the mayor and a couple of members of council, believing they might want to know that a report they heard wasn’t 100 percent true. And I left it there.

It was around that time I began hearing about an ethics policy for city council. I’m not sure why city council needs an ethics policy when there are state laws that spell out how council members can and can’t act. But who could be opposed to an ethics policy? Everyone wants ethical council members, right?

I suspected there would be information in this policy about council members sharing information about city business. And there is.

“City Council Members will respect the confidentiality of information concerning personnel, property or affairs of the city.”

And,

“Council members should neither use nor disclose to any unauthorized person confidential, privileged or proprietary information gained in the course of their duties. This is any information, or written, which is known to Council Members only because of their position within the City, and is not a matter of public record.”

And,

“Council members, if approached directly by City employees with operational concerns and issues, should immediately refer the employees first to their supervisors, and then to the City Manager as needed.”

Taken as a whole the message here is, don’t talk to anyone but the city manager and don’t go out of the circle with this information.

At times, these policies can be helpful. There are times when city employees shouldn’t go to council members with issues. It can cause stress and put council members between a rock and hard place. But there will be times when council members will absolutely wish someone had come to them with information.

There are times – and this is true in every community where journalists are as interested in reporting as repeating – when a council member’s best move is to tell the press.

Such is life in the public arena. It’s not supposed to be easy.

We don’t elect people to government to agree to empty ethics policies that will be forgotten the minute something more urgent or important happens. We don’t elect people to government to hide information from the public.

We elect them to do the things they said they would, to engage with the public, openly and enthusiastically. When they believe something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, we don’t want them to shut up, we want them to speak up.

This ethics policy makes it too easy for the unethical to take place and for nobody to ever learn of it.

With that in mind, any city council, township board or school board members are encouraged to violate their ethics policies and call or text me at 734-272-6294.

 

Tran Longmoore's picture
Tran Longmoore
Tran Longmoore is a veteran community journalist. He is founder and owner of TheSalinePost.com. He is co-publisher of The Saline Post weekly newspaper. Email him at tran@thesalinepost.com or call him at 734-272-6294.

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