Transparency and openness might be the most overexploited and undervalued ideas in the political lexicon, championed when it suits the current agenda and avoided at all costs when it’s not deemed — by those in power — to be in the public’s best interest.
Danville City Commission passed a resolution Tuesday in support of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership, along with a letter welcoming Corning Inc., for which the commission approved $312,500 in incentives. EDP President and CEO Jody Lassiter has said things needed to be smoothed over with Corning after Mayor Bernie Hunstad questioned Lassiter’s dealings with the company.
Hopefully this will put an end to all the public slap-fighting and behind the scenes backbiting for the time being.
Nevertheless, we were troubled by a part of the resolution that discourages public comment about a largely taxpayer-funded entity. That portion of the resolution states the “City agrees to raise any of its concerns directly with the [EDP] and its Partners so as to get a response and have an opportunity for clarity prior to public communication through the media.”
This section of the resolution was clearly intended to reign in Hunstad, who in addition to verbally sparring with Lassiter during commission meetings, has written several critical letters and columns published by this newspaper. Those in city government understandably prefer a less contentious public discourse, and don’t want the mayor speaking on their behalf. The idea seems to be that officials should have their facts straight before they comment, assuming those facts are being made available.
But making such a demand a part of an official city action looks like a thinly-veiled gag order from a body with no power to issue one.
We don't agree with all of Hunstad's methods with regards to the EDP, but we haven’t been witness to a question he has posed that doesn’t deserve an answer. EDP officials have a solid argument that the mayor has been largely absent from their meetings, where he could have addressed some of his concerns, and that he may be trying to make some political hay. We also can’t say whether Hunstad, who has been outspoken in questioning both the EDP's performance in accomplishing it’s mission and the legitimacy of the organization’s very structure, has already been rebuked in trying to get his questions answered privately, as he claims.
Hunstad himself came into office trumpeting transparency, then immediately presided over what many considered a back-room railroading of the former city manager. (It’s worth noting some of the same people who decried all those shrouded actions then are now calling for him to clam up.)
However, if the mayor, a commissioner, a city employee, or any resident, for that matter, wants to raise questions about an agency entrusted with the community’s economic development strategy and more than $100,000 in city tax money, they should not feel restrained to do so. Resolutions, memorandum of agreement and edicts on high don’t supersede the First Amendment or a responsibility to a public that can’t be in the room to hear answers when concerns are addressed “directly” with the EDP.
We have our own reservations about some aspects of the EDP’s imperfect union of public and formerly independent private and quasi-private (see primarily grant-funded) agencies, but won’t attempt to relitigate those issues here. Although it is often difficult to tell where public ends and private begins, that is the nature of an arrangement the city and county have repeatedly signed off on.
We fully support the overall mission of the EDP and the job Lassiter and others are trying to do for the community. But that doesn’t mean their efforts are above criticism or inquiry.
Both unity and transparency are worth aspiring to. Sometimes, though, the concepts are in conflict with one another and frank — even contentious — debates bubble over into full view. That’s the price we pay for a free and open society.
It is also why civility and courteousness are so important. We would all benefit if everyone involved showed more of both.