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Editor's Voice: Keeping the public informed fulltime

Posted 1/7/14

The Borough of Middletown opened an emergency shelter at the Middletown Volunteer Fire Department’s fire hall on the first day of a brutal cold snap and sub-zero wind chills, and issued a press release about it after a Borough Council meeting on …

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Editor's Voice: Keeping the public informed fulltime

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Not everything local government does reaches that level of public service, but a tremendous amount of what government does affects our quality of life. Besides, it’s the public’s money that funds local government, and the public has a right to know how it’s spent, how proposed laws could affect them, how public assets owned by government are being managed.

 

It’s good when government keeps the public informed. So when council voted last month to separate the duties of Chris Courogen, borough secretary and director of communications, so he could focus on the communications – and keep his annual compensation, $50,000 salary and benefits – we wondered if it was a step by the borough to be more open about its business. It’s been difficult – sometimes nearly impossible – to get information and answers from the borough on many issues and initiatives.

There once was a time when each of the borough’s department heads gave a lengthy and detailed report on their work to councilors during public meetings. Recent councils began to limit those public reports – in fact, council had imposed a communications policy that barred department heads from talking to the media unless interviews were arranged by Courogen, a policy that still stands.

Past borough managers had taken it upon themselves to deal with media inquiries, since they were involved in every aspect of the borough’s operations, but that has not been the case lately, perhaps because of the policy.

And there once was a time that the police department willingly offered a list of crimes it investigated for publication – knowing there has been a rash of break-ins in your neighborhood could make you more vigilant, and informing the public of a crime could result in a tip not yet received. Getting information from police has been a struggle for us lately as well. The communications policy seems to have put a stranglehold on information.

We believe part of the problem is that some borough officials don’t like what we print. It’s punishment for a story, column or opinion piece we’ve published that they don’t like. They have hardly kept their displeasure hidden. They don’t return phone calls or e-mails. A most recent case involved Courogen’s change in work duties: After council voted to accept his resignation as borough secretary, Courogen left the meeting room immediately after the meeting was over, avoiding our reporter. We called and e-mailed him and borough manager Tim Konek for information – and never received an answer. It’s not the first time that has happened.

We’re hoping that council’s decision to keep a full-time director of communications signals a desire to be more open to the public by providing more information to the public. Only two media outlets cover Middletown regularly and religiously – us and PennLive.com – so, using a bit of rough logic, we make up about half of the media inquiries received by the borough. It is our belief that paying a director of communications to answer only half of the media inquiries the borough receives would be like hiring a director of pothole repair to repair only half the potholes in the streets – or repair potholes only on the streets he likes.

We’re hoping council’s commitment to communications with the public improves the public’s ability to get information from borough government. The objective should be to keep the public informed.

  

  

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