Editorial: Highlands hearing shows need for public engagement |

Editorial: Highlands hearing shows need for public engagement

Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Harrison resident Laura Butler, voices her opinion and ask the school board to be more transparent during a public meeting at Highlands High School. Monday Feb 11, 2019.

There is a reason that government meetings are public.

It is because the public has a right to know and participate in what the government is doing.

The leaders represent the people. The people, therefore, aren’t supposed to be cut out of the process. The people delegated the responsibility of decision-making. They didn’t abrogate an interest in the decisions.

Sometimes there’s a reason people don’t know what’s happening, and all too often, it’s that they just aren’t that interested in a couple hours of dry discussion about worker’s compensation insurance or the grant application process for a bridge construction project or any of the dozens of other things that — let’s be brutally honest — are exactly the reason we elect someone to do that for us. That’s why plenty of municipal meetings have a lot of empty chairs and why C-SPAN will never compete with HBO.

But that makes it all the more important to engage with the people when they are in those seats. When the people show up at a meeting, it means something. It means they are passionate about the topic, whether they are excited about something positive or afraid of something they don’t understand or vehemently opposed to something they don’t want to happen.

That passion cannot be met with dismissal or disregard.

Even if, ultimately, the decision isn’t what the people want, the discussion has to happen in their view. The process must be transparent. The people have to be heard and the information has to be available, because without open and forthright communication, there is no trust.

This is an issue that touches every level of government, every agency and every official. It is not specific to any community or cause. One example, however, is the situation at Highlands School District, where passionate residents attended a hearing Monday over the proposed closing of the Highlands Support Center, previously the Fawn Primary Center.

“Everybody here knows you’re going to close Fawn. Our opinion doesn’t matter,” Susan Bajack of Harrison told the school board.

People have to believe that what they say matters. Part of that is on the people, who should make every effort to be as engaged and informed as possible.

But government has to meet them halfway, providing the information and welcoming — no, encouraging — the engagement.