Editorial: Silence Isn’t Golden
To state the obvious, there’s something fundamentally flawed with the concept of a nonspeaking spokeswoman.
In the case of Lebanon, that would be Mayor Georgia Tuttle, who is not always noncommunicative but often either avoids making comments or refers inquiries to the city manager when reporters have questions about city business. Tuttle rightly points out that Lebanon’s mayor should not be confused with those who run big cities: Elected by the City Council, the mayor of Lebanon is responsible for presiding over council meetings and handling ceremonial duties. Unlike in major cities, Lebanon’s mayor has no more power than her fellow councilors.
Here’s the problem. Under a “media relations policy” adopted last year by the City Council, the mayor was designated as the councilor who would serve as the “chief spokesperson representing the City Council for matters pertaining to the City Council as a whole.” Actually, the real problem is that Tuttle apparently doesn’t feel comfortable filling that role. There are a number of reasons for that, Tuttle told Valley News staff writer Ben Conarck last week. She said she generally doesn’t like to talk about council decisions before a vote is taken because she would prefer to defer judgment about issues until the council has fully heard and debated the evidence. That was the case in the matter of the proposed airport runway-modification project, which the council chewed over at length before eventually rejecting. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that she feels comfortable talking about those issues after the vote. On the runway matter, Tuttle said she didn’t want to comment about the council decision because she was in the minority. Besides that, she’s busy with her dermatology practice, and she doesn’t approve of how the Valley News previously identified her as mayor when she spoke at a public meeting on kindergarten expansion. She argues that she spoke as a private citizen; others might contend that her position makes that impossible.
In truth, the “media relations policy” is something of a mash. It attempts to recognize the right of individual councilors to express their opinion while also imposing some level of control over the expression of opinion to minimize occurrences when the public might mistake an individual opinion for official policy. Why that’s even necessary is a mystery. Residents can generally tell the difference between an elected official expressing a personal opinion and somebody speaking on behalf of the city, and representative government generally works best when elected officials speak freely.
Actually, it’s Tuttle who seems to be struggling to differentiate between the individual and the collective voice. If she’s asked to speak on behalf of the council before a vote, her desire to reserve judgment until debate is completed shouldn’t matter: She can say she hasn’t decided how she will vote and share whatever information is available about the city’s situation. Likewise, voting in the minority shouldn’t prevent her from explaining the implications of a particular vote. Presumably, members of the majority can speak for themselves while she speaks for the council as a whole.
Tuttle’s predecessors have recognized that even though the mayor’s position confers little real power, the position makes that person the most prominent among equals — and that making oneself available to answer questions serves residents and the council alike. Now that the City Council has decided that it’s necessary to appoint the mayor as the “official” spokeswoman for the city, it’s particularly important that councilors make sure that the person they place in that position meets all of its responsibilities.