Discourse should be welcomed

Published 12:17 pm Saturday, June 23, 2012

I am of the opinion that a public official, whether elected or appointed, should strive to maintain a certain level of decorum befitting someone in his or her position.

Whether it is behavior at a public function, such as a city council or school board meeting, or language used when issuing public statements in their capacity as a public official, individuals in public positions bear a greater burden to behave appropriately than the average Joe. You may call that unfair, but I call it the way things ought to be.

In recent weeks, a number of news articles, columns and letters to the editor in The Tidewater News have focused on the state of public education in our community. Much of it has been critical, and rightfully so. It is impossible to deny the fact that Franklin’s public schools have underperformed in recent years, yet the blame lies with no one person, institution or set of circumstances.

Indeed there are numerous factors that have led to this decline, despite the fact that there are many hard-working, qualified and dedicated employees in the school system, who strive for excellence on a daily basis.

Significant changes in socioeconomic conditions within the city, oppressive requirements from state and federal regulatory agencies and certain missteps by local school officials have all played a role in the fact that our schools are facing a long, uphill battle to regain the level of performance we all expect. And it is fitting that those who are concerned, whether or not they have a direct stake in the outcome, voice their concern and have input in the process.

Apparently, not everyone seems to agree.

We have a vibrant discussion board on our website, where readers can comment and post their own views on the news stories and opinions that we publish. Most of the time, contributors do a good job of remaining constructive and actually add valuable insight and perspective to the discussions. In fewer instances, well, not so much.

I have a very strong opinion of those who choose to use our message boards to anonymously launch personal attacks on individuals without fear of accountability, and it’s not a positive one. I have a great deal of respect for those who will attach their name to an opinion, put it out there for the entire world to see and deal with the repercussions, whatever they may be; I wish more of the discussion participants would do so.

What I don’t agree with, however, is a public official taking to this forum and disparaging those who have a willingness to participate in a discussion that is not only warranted, but long overdue, regardless of whether or not they sign their own name.

But that is precisely what one member of the Franklin School Board has recently chosen to do.

After the recent publication of two different columns — one by Bob Holt, a Franklin native, former school board chairman and a professional educator, and one by this scribe — Franklin School Board member Glenn Hopkins took to our website and lambasted both Bob and me for being critical of the performance of the Franklin school system.

Responding to his remarks is not something I take lightly, and in fact I have thought at great length about whether I should reply at all, for not wanting to give the impression that I can’t stand up to public criticism myself. I also want to avoid giving the impression that those who disagree with my position on certain issues shouldn’t voice them for fear of retribution in future columns, because nothing could be further from the truth.

This may come as a surprise, but not everyone has agreed with everything I’ve commented on in this space, and they’ve let me know — both in person and in print. And I’m OK with that because that is the role of the opinion page in this and all newspapers: to stimulate discussion on important issues and create space for various and opposing viewpoints.

But when people are insulted publicly for simply having the audacity to share an opinion on the most pressing issue facing our community today, well, that just rubs me the wrong way. Especially when it comes from someone in a position of public authority.

Which brings me back to my original point: If you’re an elected official or a person who has been entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing a public institution, you should be held — and, more importantly, hold yourself — to a higher standard of public behavior.

Commenting publicly on policy issues or presenting opposing viewpoints are not only what I would consider to be acceptable behaviors, but they are ones that I sincerely encourage as it would raise the level of public discourse on important issues. Criticizing others for having the nerve to express an opinion which does not match your own, and highlights the fact that there are obvious failings within an institution you are responsible for leading, does not rise to the level of decorum befitting a public official.

I expect more, and the citizens of Franklin deserve more, from our public officials.

TONY CLARK is the associate publisher at The Tidewater News. His email address is tony.clark@tidewaternews.com.