Monday, April 15, 2013

Rehoboth Censorship is Cheating Citizens

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on April 15, 2013.
By Bill Gouveia
In most communities, boards and committees do their best to involve citizens and give them as much insight into the workings of town government as possible.  The idea is local government works best when it encourages participation.

But not so in Rehoboth, where some officials continue to treat local government as their own private club.  They seem to view dealing with the public as a necessary evil, and go out of their way to make it difficult for citizens to stay informed and active.  Case in point is the recent controversy involving the town’s finance committee and the refusal of officials to allow their meeting to be broadcast on local cable access.

A recent gathering of the Fin Com was scheduled to be covered by the local cable operation.  They had an employee at the meeting ready to broadcast, but were requested not to record or broadcast the meeting by Chairman Michael Deignan.  Rehoboth TV employee Derek Rousseau later confirmed this request was also “approved by two members of the BOS (Board of Selectmen)”, and thus viewers tuning in to see their government in action were instead treated to a black screen.

The meeting was expected to be controversial because of the presence of resident Christopher Morra, who was expected to dispute his recent ouster from that committee.  Deignan acknowledged he requested the meeting not be televised, stating “I see no reason to waste the town’s money to record meetings which are going to be short.” 

Robert Mckim of the cable committee told selectmen his group had been ready and able to broadcast that night before being told not to.  Selectman Chairman Susan Pimental said she and her board did not want to be accused of censorship, but suggested new rules be put in place.  “Going forward I think we should have a policy on what gets recorded and televised”, she said.

Sorry Chairman Pimental, but this policy thing looks like just a dodge.   Censorship is exactly what you and Chairman Deignan engaged in, and it appears you did so willingly, knowingly and deliberately.  You should be ashamed of your actions.  They were disrespectful to your community and a slap in the face to the citizens you represent.

If the cable people were ready, the event should have been televised.  Ordering it to be kept from the viewing public is nothing short of disgraceful.  It is a stretch to maintain there was any reason other than politics to stop the broadcast.  The “wasting the town’s money” argument is so weak as to be laughable.  You should not be showing residents only the parts of the government you want them to see.

Officials did not want to give Christopher Morra a wider audience.  The controversial figure has long been at odds with various boards and officers, and televising the meeting was not going to be a pretty affair.  Deignan and selectmen did not want any more dirty laundry aired.  But that is not a valid reason for censorship.

This is part of the problem in having a cable operation directly under control of town government.  When they start deciding what people should not see, the citizens suffer.  But why should Rehoboth officials worry about any backlash?  Local voters have not shown very much interest in what their government does.

The last election had no contested races for anything except constable.  An embarrassingly small turnout of just 5 percent bothered to cast ballots.  Rehoboth is the only area town that runs partisan local elections, where Republicans and Democrats nominate candidates for selectmen and school committee, making the process that much more closed.  And there is no town manager, only a weak administrator position, thus allowing selectmen to pretty much run the day-to-day operations.

Any town official who refuses to allow local meetings to be broadcast is not worthy of holding office.  They should resign, because they obviously do not understand the importance of transparency in government.
Chairman Deignan pointed out the Open Meeting Law does not require all meetings to be televised.  That is true.  But those who hide behind that as a reason to restrict public viewing do a disservice to their community.

 Wake up, Rehoboth citizens.  Your officials are trying to keep you in the dark.

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

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