Monday, August 20, 2012

Boards and Officials All Need to Speak

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, August 20, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

Recent events in Mansfield brought forth an issue that could be classified as an “oldie-but-goodie”.  It is the question of how individual board or committee members speak out on issues that involve them, and how that colors and affects the government entity’s ability to conduct business objectively, efficiently and effectively.

At one of their meetings, selectmen had an agenda item concerning establishing protocols for speaking to the media.  The stated intent was to have a policy which would avoid confusion between the opinions and goals of individual selectmen and those of the majority of the board.  It followed a flurry of activity after recent events concerning the Comcast Center which placed great public scrutiny on the town and the venue. 

But leaving aside for a moment the specifics of the Mansfield situation, this is a topic that is often discussed in local government.  The people who populate boards of selectmen and school committees are generally not professional politicians.  They are usually dedicated townspeople who have chosen to step up and offer their services to their community, often with no compensation.   That is in no way offset by the fact they also receive all the aggravation they could possibly imagine.

As a result, many local officials and boards are far from expert at communicating with the media and the public.  With all the emphasis on local news coverage these days, city and town officials are under a brighter spotlight than ever before.  Local newspapers, websites, blogs, and local cable access television have all made being a local official a more visible and arguably more difficult job.  Getting the message of the board across rather than each individual’s message can be a problem.

Having chaired a local board of selectmen, let me be clear on one important point.  No public official should ever give up the right to express their opinion on any issue.  In fact, they have an obligation to let the citizens they serve know where they stand and what they think. 

At the same time, each individual board or committee member has an obligation and a duty to the whole.  They were elected to be a part of the governing body, and should always remember they are just a part of that public institution.  Their job is to bring their individual perspective and ideas to the table, argue as strenuously as necessary to try and convince a majority to agree with them, then accept and work towards the goals their committee eventually adopts.

That does not eliminate dissent or individuality – in fact it makes both those things more critical to the process.  But there are ways to do certain things, and ways to not do them.  The line that divides right and wrong in these instances is a very fine one, and where to draw it is often a topic of intense local debate.

The ultimate goal of every official should be to work towards solutions to the problems their board faces.  They cannot do that alone.  Those who constantly “perform” at meetings and outside them are often – though not always – trying harder to look like they are working hard than actually working hard.

When a selectman asks questions of his/her fellow members or town manager at a public meeting, they might be looking for answers.  Or they might be trying to upstage them and look good at their expense.  If their real goal is to simply gather information, effective officials often ask the questions beforehand and give their colleagues the chance to prepare.  But posturing and politics is often easier.

When one member of a board speaks to the press, they have to understand how their comments will reflect on their board.  Even when you begin with the famous “I’m only speaking for myself” it can influence the ability of your board to perform their duties.  It makes sense to have policies in effect allowing individual freedom and flexibility, yet making sure the rights and positions of the majority are properly and fairly expressed.

That’s not easy.  As someone often accused of being too much of an “individual” while serving on committees, I am sensitive to the issue.  But the best committees or boards are the ones that in the end speak with one voice blended voice.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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