The motto of fictional Faber College from the movie “Animal House” is simple, to the point and supposed to be a joke. It goes like this:
“Knowledge is good.”
Yes, I thought this to be hilarious when I first saw the movie as a college risng sophomore way back in 1978. Now I’ve come to realize that “Knowledge is good,” could quite possibly be the guiding motto for American life today.
Here’s the most recent evidence.
1. The federal government last week posted an alarming ad in the Times-News public notices concerning Alamance Regional Medical Center that set a new standard for stark language and misleading information. As a result, a panic ensued that kept our receptionist busy for four days. Bet they answered a few hundred calls at ARMC, too.
2. A Facebook-fueled rumor about a Mebane-area middle school Thursday night warned of a possible threat of violence on the campus Friday stemming from a fight the previous day. This spilled from Facebook to Twitter to traditional telephones and sparked understandable panic for concerned parents who felt uninformed about something that might impact the safety of their children. The resulting social hysteria that ensued kept our receptionist, ad department and newsroom staff busy for the balance of Friday morning. My hunch is, the school system and sheriff’s office got a bunch of calls, too. This cascading domino effect led to wildly inaccurate tales about nearly every high school in the county being locked down. Not a one, as it turned out, was locked down for even a second.
3. Things got a little chippy over the past couple of weeks on not one but two local governing boards over the presentation of information. The Alamance-Burlington Board of Education had a row among its board members over who speaks officially for the board to the media and others. The Alamance County Board of Commissioners meeting featured a discussion over whether future board meeting agendas would be released later than they are at present to prevent the media from writing stories in advance of meetings, Commissioner Tim Sutton said.
4. Not to be outdone, Graham’s City Council put a new policy in place that would limit what the public could talk about during the public comments portion of its meetings.
Whew, it looks like Sunshine Week, which starts today, arrived just in time.
Sunshine Week, for those not aware, highlights efforts to bring government operations into the open — or light of day — for all to see. It’s supposed to trumpet what rights citizens have in regard to attending government meetings and access to public records. Lots of people see it as a newspaper or freedom of the press issue. In truth, it’s about the rights all of us have under the law to know what’s going on.
And while no laws are being broken in any of the previously cited cases, it’s obvious that the free flow of information remains something local governments aren’t too comfortable with even after years of practice — or malpractice, as the case may be.
In case No. 1, for example, the administrators of the Medicaid and Medicare program posted an advertisement stating it would terminate its agreement with ARMC on March 18. That left older hospital users terrified and with dozens of questions. The ad failed to mention the hospital had an opportunity to get back its standing and was working to do so. That was in a story published by the Times-News four days before the ad appeared. The hospital should be credited with providing additional information. The feds, not so much.
Case No. 2 should be a lesson for the school system in how not to manage information along the new social media landscape. Robo-calls and social media could’ve been used to keep parents informed that school leaders were on top of the situation and working to make sure the school was safe. In the past, school officials worried about sparking hysteria with such efforts. Now Facebook does that by itself. No news by the school system, in such a case, is a hazard warning for parents.
In looking at Case No. 3, my feeling is that any member of the school board is free to talk about any subject at any time with the media and public. That’s true of all elected officials. And if school board members don’t always see eye to eye then fine and dandy — that’s how honest debate develops and ideas formed. As to the question of agendas for the board of commissioners, they should be released as soon as possible so the public can make plans to attend meetings— and the media can write stories — even though the county is not legally obligated to do so. Sutton is right. The earlier and more open the better.
That brings us to Case No. 4, an instance of irony no less humorous than the motto of Faber College. To the action taken by Graham City Council I can only offer this assessment.
NOTE: The following is a template for a resolution local governments could make regarding Sunshine Week. Any excuse for government on any level to remember President James Madison is a pretty good damn idea.
WHEREAS, James Madison, the father of our federal Constitution, wrote that “consent of the governed” requires that the people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” and
WHEREAS, every citizen in our participatory democracy has an inherent right of access to government meetings and public records; and
WHEREAS, an open and accessible government is vital to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in their government and in the government’s ability to effectively serve its citizens; and
WHEREAS, the protection of every person’s right of access to public records and government meetings is a high priority of [name of governmental unit]; and
WHEREAS, the [name of governmental unit] is committed to openness and transparency in all aspects of its operations and seeks to set a standard in this regard; and
NOW, THEREFORE, the [name of governmental unit] commits during this Sunshine Week, March 11-17, commemorating the 261st anniversary of James Madison’s birth, and throughout the year 2012 to work diligently to enhance the public’s access to government records and information, to increase information provided electronically and online, and to ensure that all meetings of deliberative bodies under its jurisdiction, and their committees, are fully noticed and open to the public.
PERSONAL NOTE: I’ve seen governments resolve to do things that were far less important than this.