Mum’s the Word

Sometimes saying nothing is the best policy. But if you have been bestowed with the public trust, elected to represent the citizenry of a nation, state, county or particular district, silence is the worst policy.

There is no law or ethical code mandating that any elected official must speak to the press, but dealing with the media, like travel accounts and per diem checks, does come with the territory. If answering questions is something with which one is exceptionally uncomfortable, then perhaps politics just isn’t for you.

This week, The Voice was greeted by that old familiar silence when we sought clarification from the president of the Jenkinsville Water Company’s Board of Trustees on how, exactly, the company expected to pony up the $14,000 fine DHEC levied against it for botching a boil water advisory in July. The public, specifically shareholders in the water company, might be interested in knowing where that money will be coming from and what steps have been taken to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. To his credit, however, the Board President at least answers and returns our phone calls, even if it is to say nothing at all. The same cannot be said, on the other hand, for the people running the Fairfield County School Board.

Last week our story on an unauthorized Atlanta field trip taken by the Board Chairwoman and the Board Secretary contained two glaring omissions – input from the Board Chairwoman and the Board Secretary. Not because The Voice didn’t reach out to these two individuals, but because phone calls and emails to each of them had not been returned; and, to date, have still not been returned. That leaves some pretty significant questions about that trip hanging in the air like a bad smell: Why did the Chairwoman’s party spend so much to rent an SUV in Columbia when a comparable vehicle could have been rented locally for much less? Was the gas tank on the SUV empty when it was picked up? According to the rental company, an empty gas tank is unusual, but not impossible, and it would be the only explanation for how much money the Chairwoman spent out of her mileage check on gas.

And what about the Board Secretary? Did she spend her entire mileage check – more than $240 – on gas for a round trip to Atlanta in a District-owned car? Did she return any portion of her mileage check to the District, as the Chairwoman did?

All of these questions were carefully outlined and presented to both the Chairwoman and the Secretary, and the answer was No Answer. The Voice was not even given the courtesy of a “No comment.”

Refusing to comment to the press doesn’t make the press look bad, and it doesn’t hurt our feelings. It does, however, make it appear as if you either don’t know the answer (in which case the appropriate answer in order to avoid appearing incompetent is, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”), or you have a very good reason for not revealing the answer (in other words, you may be culpable in some wrongdoing or some potentially embarrassing or compromising error). Saying “No comment” is still a comment, and sometimes it speak volumes. But it is, ultimately, a cheat. A cop-out.

And you’re not cheating the press – you are cheating your constituents; the people who elected you. You don’t have to like the media, but at least have the decency to respect the people who put you in office.