I’ve been shunned and “no commented” by many politicians in my career. Senators, governors, Congressmen — they dodged far more of my questions “on the record” than they ever answered, unless there was something advantageous to them in answering.

But behind the scenes? When their names weren’t attached? Oh, they’d blab like confessional killers trying to pin the crime on the other guy. The difference is they just didn’t want to stake themselves out and make their true views known. God forbid the voters find out how much they knew — or how little.

That kind of thing goes on all the time, and it’s no different today in Moore County. It seems like people will say anything to get elected, but once in office they want to say as little publicly as possible, lest they actually be held accountable for their words.

The latest case of this is in Whispering Pines, where new Mayor Glenn Bernhard — the council chooses its own leader and did so at its Dec. 8 meeting — is suggesting some new procedures that would discourage elected board members from speaking to the media.

In one of his first orders of business, Bernhard led a discussion at the Dec. 8 meeting of the council’s “rules of procedure.” These are the policies that help direct the respective actions and responsibilities of council members.

As I watched the archived video recording, it was clear Bernhard came prepared with some proposed changes.

“How do we tackle the media? A lot of times they’ll reach out for an interview. Personally I would like ... I would like to change it where we have them give us their questions, we deliberate their questions as a body and then we can give an answer as a body.

“I think that gives a little more clarity as to where this council, what their answer is. As opposed to the mayor saying something, or the mayor pro tem or the council person. So that’s something I’d like to kick around.”

So, under the mayor’s proposal, any reporter asking any question would have to submit it to the village, have the whole board mull it over — open or closed session, Mr. Mayor? — and then deliver an answer like the word from on high.

Keep in mind, the only “media” Whispering Pines ever interacts with with any regularity is The Pilot and the Whispering Pines community paper The New Pitch — its masthead awesomely reads “A newspaper featuring village news, chit chat and ‘other sap that runs from the pines.’”

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, the First Amendment: No rule or procedure can preclude anyone, much less a publicly elected official, from speaking. So any rule requiring the board to speak as one voice would be unconstitutional from the start.

Second, state law makes no allowance for elected boards to “deliberate” on the media’s questions, and there’s certainly no provision for something like that to occur in closed session.

Third, board members are elected individually and are responsible individually to the public. That public is often represented by the media. If you want to hold public office, you should expect to be held accountable for your views and votes, and you should expect to have to express your opinions on all matters. That includes when a reporter calls you for comment on an issue before you.

When reporters call with questions, they are acting on behalf of the taxpayers and voters of that respective community, whether it’s Whispering Pines, the Board of Education or Moore County Commissioners.

To “no comment” a reporter or say you can’t speak because it wouldn’t be appropriate is to disrespect and disregard the very people who voted for you.

Oftentimes, an official will defer comment, saying they don’t know enough about an issue, or they’ll say they “don’t have an opinion.” Nonsense.

It is their job to be informed or get informed. Board members often get meeting agenda items with copious background briefing materials well ahead of the meeting. And they’re frequently talking to professional staff members.

As for opinions, they have them, but they just don’t want to share them publicly and be accountable for them. Or they want to leverage the opinions behind the scenes in one-on-one conversations with other board members. Trust me: Elected officials are talking plenty, just to each other and staff.

Elected officials are bestowed with the public’s trust. To ensure that trust, the public must know what those officials think, do and say on the matters they oversee. Precluding individual comments to the media obstructs that process.

What Mayor Glenn Bernhard has proposed for discussion this coming Wednesday  amounts to the Whispering Pines Town Council — Bernhard, Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Harris and members Alexa Roberts, Andy Conway and Linda Vandercook — acting as a “hive mind,” a collective, muffled voice with no room for nuance or dissent. Kind of sounds like the old Soviet Politburo days.

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(4) comments

Steve Huff

Another disappointing step to further the divide. A disappointing policy from Mayor Bernhard and an equally disappointing response from Mr Nagy. It appears everyone in politics and media could use some de-escalation training.

Patricia Punch

Maybe if the Media stuck to the actual story and didn't twist peoples' words to suit their agenda. people might be a bit more open in giving their opinion. Media seems to be more than half of the problems that we endure these days.

Kent Misegades

If the press stuck to its purpose - providing the truth without spin or omission - I suspect communication would be open and forthcoming. True reporting however is dead, it has become a political tool. It died with the media gushing over JFK, and perhaps even under Lincoln, who threw dissenters in the press in jail.

Robert Levy

John, you want it both ways.. When a member of the Board of Education expresses dissent, you call it divisive. When another board ( a city council) tries to put forward a unified position, you call it “ unconstitutional.” I actually agree with your column. I have received a great deal of pressure from our former board chair and other legacy board members to refrain from giving my opinion. And, I know I would be better positioned politically if I said more often “ no comment” or simply always supported the current board position. But, the people are entitled to my opinion. They are also entitled to yours… but not from both sides of your mouth.

Maybe The Pilot will reconsider the worth of the same vigorous debate on the school board as The Pilot apparently now advocates for the Whispering Pines Village Council.

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