Supporting Open Government
(from Maine Townsman,  November 1992)
Speech at MMA Convention 1992

EDITOR'S NOTE: Several municipal officials attending the convention asked that we print in the TOWNSMAN Bob Saunders' speech at the Delegates Luncheon during convention. Bob Saunders is the editorial page editor of the JOURNAL-TRIBUNE in Biddeford.

Good Afternoon. First of all, I would like to thank you for having me here today. And I would say at the outset, if you don't enjoy my little entertainment, get after the program committee. They probably could have had Tim Sample if they'd half tried.

I came here today out of a sense of duty, mostly. It's not that I like public speaking, but I believe, firmly, that public officials should stand accountable for what they are and what they do. And so I have to hold myself to that same standard.

I also came because I have an abiding belief in what you do. No doubt a few of you third selectmen are just in it for the money, but I have a great admiration - which I may not always communicate clearly - for those who care enough about their communities to give their time and take the aggravation that is involved in governing. I also have a great admiration for the skills and the dedication of the professionals who know how to keep government's wheels turning.

I'm going to begin by drawing a little on my recollection of American literature.

When the poet Walt Whitman busted onto the poetry scene of 19th century America, he was about as welcome as your average group of Concerned Citizens for Better Government at a board of selectmen's meeting.

"I celebrate myself," he said. "I sing myself." And people who had spent lifetimes toiling like good little bureaucrats in the trenches of Academia, paying their iambic pentameter dues, writing of great heroes, ladies who walk in beauty like the night, and the meaning of God's plan ... they listened as long as they could bear it, to his free verse, to his celebration of all that was rough and loud and uncouth - and thought for sure that Armageddon's bull had gotten loose in the china shop of the fine arts at last.

And yet - and yet, his poetry had something that has made it last. It was alive. It had heart and soul and guts and elemental energy. There was a collision between the artist and common man, "small-d" democracy, between the artist and real life as ordinary people lived it ... fallibly, passionately, with all the appropriate noises and odors.

Walt Whitman looked the academic drones straight in the eye - this is very close to the end of "Song of Myself" - and said, 'The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me - he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed - I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

Think for a moment about the word "Yawp." A yawp is a raucous noise, rough vigorous language. Think what kind of voice it represents. Because what I want to talk about today is the voice that people have - or are prevented from having - in matters of public concern.

One of the things we share - you and I - is the opportunity to speak out. Once I'm safely out of the room and headed back down the interstate, you can ask the people here from York County about Bob Saunders' editorials.

"Well, he's a wicked liberal," somebody will say. "Sometimes, it seems he has no respect for the hard choices that public officials have to make in a less than perfect world. He's got some strange ideas. Sometimes he makes fun of things."

Well, that's all pretty much true. And I love my work. I consider it a privilege to be paid to express an opinion or two each day.

I definitely have a voice on the opinion pages, but my voice isn't the only one, thank goodness. Our columnists are as liberal as Anna Quindlen, as conservative as Cal Thomas. I brought Cal Thomas's column - with which I almost always disagree - after hearing other editorial page editors say he'd make my liberal readers so mad they could spit. That did it for me. On my pages, I want every point of view to be represented, not just the ones I happen to hold.

The third part - maybe the most important part of my pages -  is the Readers' Forum - wherein anybody gets to speak out on anything from yesterday's editorial to what the selectmen or the council are doing to what somebody wrote in a letter last week. Nobody is spared or protected, because the Readers' Forum is a yard sale of ideas where you don't pay $10 for table space.

Let me give you a sample of the kind of hits I sometimes take.

This is a very short letter I was pleased to publish . . . responding to an editorial about the controversial song "Cop Killer" by the rap artist Ice-T.

Editor:
Journal Tribune

Sir:
I've read your editorial on Ice-T and conclude you are verily stupid.

That's it.  No point-by-point refutation (which I would also have been pleased to publish). I love letters criticizing the newspaper that begin, "I'll bet you won't print this," because we will. We don't screen out letters that disagree with us, even the disagreeable ones. Our critics get the red carpet treatment, not the red pencil.

Some of you may be acquainted with the name Jonathan Malmude. Dr. Malmude is a history professor at St. Joseph's College in Windham who has - for my money -  an unconscionably acute fear of comprehensive planning, regionalization and state control. Our Readers' Forum provided him with the opportunity to polish his diatribes and to be a source of much irritation to a number of good people across the state who understand that planning is necessary to manage progress. He talked about planning as fascism. And having honed his arguments in letters, he started popping up at meetings around the state to argue against these so-called fascist plots wherever they were being hatched. Maybe he showed up in your town, too.

I didn't agree with most of what he said. But I think he has contributed something to the debate about land use planning in Maine, and even if I didn't, I would gladly print his letters so that his ideas could fail on their own merits. Dr. Malmude was suspicious of me in the beginning, because I had a habit of arguing with him on the telephone and because our editorials have supported comprehensive planning. But he finally came to understand that what was most important to me was that the editorial pages give him and everyone else a chance to be heard.

I'd like to share a note that came attached to a letter submitted for publication. It was a very short note and it made my day.

Bob:

I would like to thank you for the acceptance of my previous letter regarding Congressman Andrews. Being one of the few conservatives in our area, I appreciate my letters being read in the Journal Readers' Forum.

Not everybody understands or accepts this concept that the free exchange of ideas is essential to democracy, to the continual renegotiation of the terms on which we coexist and cooperate with each other.

I once got a letter from a lawyer representing a development company with big plans for our area. He had perceived "an alarming escalation in the letters to the editor which have been written by opponents of the project." He said the proper function of letters to the editor was to criticize the newspaper for its editorial stands or for press bias, but not "to arouse or inflame public opinion, especially where there are procedures for public review of a development project."

I can't recall precisely how we responded to his helpful hints. But I do know he didn't shake our faith that the Readers' Forum is one of the very finest and most appropriate of places for public opinion to be aroused or inflamed.

Voices. I began by saying Walt Whitman's poetry was about as welcome on the poetry scene as the insistent participation in local government of some self-styled group of concerned citizens.

I suspect that many of you know what I mean, because surely York County is not the only place where people form little guerilla armies to do battle with the powers that be - that's you - and to nit-pick and criticize and disagree with anything and everything. Taxes are too high. Government is unresponsive. Our street didn't get paved. The schools are underfunded. The schools are overfunded. The council is corrupt.

The fundamental question for you is what to do with all this interest in local affairs. Do you make it difficult at every turn for citizens and activists to have any real impact on business-as-usual or the decisions you have to make? Because after all, you are the professionals and the citizen-governors who have put in the hours to understand the issues in all their complexity. You've tried to balance the money against the needs, the competing interests. And then some group or some individual comes on like God's anointed expert to question your every move?

Absolutely. It's the way things work and since the government belongs to all the people - not just the elected and appointed people - your job is to make sure the government process allows every voice to be heard. As a matter of principle, and because it's the key to government's credibility and because it produces the best possible decisions. Nobody ever got smarter by not listening to somebody else's opinion. And nobody ever governed better by keeping the public out of the loop.

There are a number of ways you can make it possible for people in your community to use their voices. Some of them will make your job harder because you'll be forced to do it better. So be it.

If you want people to have a voice, let them know how they can get in touch with you. That means a listed phone number and an answering machine and a habit of returning calls. I think that it would be a good idea for people in public life to have office hours. That includes small town selectmen and big city councilors. People don't always need an audience with the whole board.

Make your position on issues clear. If you don't know enough to have made up your mind, say so. If you have made up your mind, let people know where you stand and why. Yes, they might disagree. They might even persuade you to reconsider.

Always, always, always show respect for people whether you agree with them or not, and always respect their point of view. This is a lesson a lot of people could stand to learn, including President Bush, who just last week went ballistic and called a group that thinks he should pay Maine taxes "nutty" and "wackos." It was unseemly in one who has risen so high.

Run your offices not only as if the public had a right to know what goes on there - but as if it were your duty and your mission and your privilege to help them find out. Newspaper people are notorious complainers about this, I know, but it is the law. And if people are to have a voice, they need information. If your files are not set up so that everyone in the office can tell what's public and what's not, you need to rearrange your files and examine your assumptions.

Schedule public hearings on topics of interest or controversy - not just when the law says you have to, but when your eyes and ears tell you that people are troubled about something or have something on their minds. Invite people to submit written comments and suggestions as an alternative to speaking at a meeting.

When you have a big issue, like the town budget or a new ordinance, set up the paperwork to promote debate, not stifle it. Don't bury the controversial bits in a lot of unreadable jargon or in pages and pages of budget detail. Highlight it, summarize it, put it on the table for people to see. Get it out in the open and fight about it as if it mattered.

Don't force 100 members of the public to stand out in the hall because the meeting was scheduled for a room that will only hold three dozen. Move the meeting. If you have a large crowd interested in one particular agenda item, take it up first, don't shuffle it to the end, hoping they'll give up and go home.

Give people more choices. Instead of one recommended budget, why not alternatives? Instead of one recommended ordinance change, why not options?

Be responsive to citizen initiatives. Too many boards approach citizen petitions as if they had nuclear warheads. Too often, officials use their power to ignore, to stall, to sabotage, when they ought to be using their ability to enable and empower. If your community has a citizen initiative process, respect the citizens' decision to use it. If citizens can't get something on your agenda, how can you hope they'll respect the things you put on theirs - or on their tab?

It pays, always, to keep things in perspective. If you remain unconvinced that a policy of inclusion is the best policy for local government, consider the matter solely in practical terms. Those who want a voice are gaining courage and strength in these anti-incumbent, populist times. And consider the opportunities - and the warning - implicit in the quote on the cover of the program for this convention, by the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey:

"Since changes are going on anyway, the great thing is to learn to lay hold of them and turn them in the direction of our desires. Conditions and events are neither to be fled from nor passively acquiesced in: they are to be utilized and directed."

It may seem - particularly in their more strident moments, as if citizen groups and critics are the enemy - saboteurs of the orderly and efficient conduct of public affairs. But in fact, those groups, those critics, and the ruckus they cause, are the essence of open government. Not some kind of theoretical and painless open government that's never any trouble at all ... but an open government as robust and troublesome and alive ... as the poet Walt Whitman shocking the poetry establishment ... by yawping over the roofs of the world.