The purpose and intent of public meetings is to have elected officials face the public and hash out their plans and proposals in full view of those they will affect.
That purpose is not well served when officials seek to participate in meetings they cannot be bothered to attend.
That happened in Londonderry recently when the Town Council allowed a member of the Planning Board to send her comments via text messages to the chairman during a meeting. Those comments from Planning Board Vice Chairman Mary Wing-Soares were entered into the public record and minutes of the Dec. 17 meeting.
That rightly upset Aspen Road resident Dana Coons, who wrote a letter to the council objecting to the practice. We would hope that other Londonderry residents would find this upsetting as well.
Coons said the texting was a public “interruption” of the meeting and was inappropriate because other residents showed up in person to voice concerns, but Soares was able to stay home and text.
“Others in town have preferential treatment,” Coons wrote. “You owe the citizens of Londonderry an apology.”
Council Chairman John Farrell said that, while the texts were unusual, they were not illegal and were entered into the public record.
“We do want people to participate,” Farrell said, “in any way shape or form. This council wants full transparency and we’ll take it however we can get it.”
Farrell doesn’t get it. Public meetings are not held for the convenience of elected officials and board members. They are required so that the public may witness and participate in the operation of their government.
Allowing a public official to avoid attending a meeting and to communicate via text message does not contribute to transparency. It is the opposite of transparency.
Farrell apologized if he had offended anybody. Giving offense isn’t the issue. Good government is.
Anyone who has ever communicated by email or text message knows how easily such messages can be misinterpreted. Not being able to see the person communicating strips the message of the nuances of face-to-face communication.
The people’s business must be conducted in the full view of the public. That means the public must have the opportunity to face those they have elected to office and witness their deliberations over matters involving the governance of the community.
The 19th century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck supposedly said that no one should witness the making of laws or sausages. The quote is likely apocryphal. But in any case, what might have been right for the German Empire has no place in the modern United States.
Here, we want to be darn sure that what goes into our sausages is reasonably healthy and nutritious. And we certainly want our laws and regulations made in full public view so that we can be sure the process of making them was upright and honest.
We suggest that Londonderry officials who want to participate in the operation of the people’s government at least show up for public meetings. Leave the text messaging for less important matters.