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Speaking with ‘one voice’ silences important discussion

Friday, September 21, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:43 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dear Reader:

I want to celebrate the muck and messiness of democracy.

Here’s the story: At this month’s Airport Advisory Board meeting, member David Rosman suggested the board speak with “one voice” when dealing with the media. According to the Missourian reporter who attended, the idea was to appoint one person to respond to all inquiries. Questions would be in writing. It didn’t happen. Other board members declined to muzzle themselves.

Now you may be saying, “Tom, don’t fool me — you’re just glad the board didn’t make your job harder.” And if you said that, well, I would admit I’m always glad when people talk to my reporters.

But this was an important moment. Because if “one voice” is efficient and pleasant — no dissension in the ranks — it is also dangerous to the health of meaningful talk in our town.

The Airport Advisory Board may play an increasingly important public role in the coming months. Air travel has always been a concern here; just this week, the Missourian reported that it was listed among the top concerns voted on during the city’s visioning process.

I’m sure there are times when a board member’s opinions on an issue have been misconstrued as the voice of the body politic. The other option is just plain scary: Voluntarily silence yourself. What purpose would that serve? Why is it so bad to voice an opinion that another board member might disagree with — in public?

Silence is tempting these days when our national leaders and pundits preach the gospel of division. Politics has become a bad name. As a nation, we have forgotten how to be civil and disagree at the same time.

We only need look as far as the school board to see the consequences of secret discussion and a unified front. (Be sure to read George Kennedy's column this weekend.) It makes me wonder how many other boards and commissions and committees and other public entities consider it their role to speak with “one voice.”

The founding fathers said unfettered speech is an awfully important thing. Let’s have more of it, not less.

Tom


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