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The needs of the many vs. the needs of the few

LEST we be labeled one of “those people,” we try to avoid “Star Trek” references wherever possible. By Mr. Spock’s logical treatise, cribbed from utilitarian philosophy, is one of the key arguments behind openness in government.

This week, we’re confronted with two major stories, the official reaction to both of which has been less-than-open statements from responsible officials that they can’t comment because it’s a personnel matter.

We’re not saying that, in either of these cases whatever the “personnel matter” that we who pay the bills aren’t allowed to know about is of the same magnitude, but it’s fortunate that this relatively new excuse to keep anything and everything secret wasn’t around years ago.

Imagine trying to find out about Watergate if every query had been greeted with an answer that whatever White House aides did was “a personnel matter.” Not that what anyone in Marion County might have done anything that measures up to his standards, but we’d never even have known the name Benedict Arnold. The only announcement would be that he stopped being a general after a “personnel matter” arose.

Truth is, “personnel matter” isn’t to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. It’s to protect their governmental employer from lawsuits — which makes us wonder whether we as taxpayers could sue the government for not fessing up when someone in its employ makes a mistake that we end up having to pay for.

Maybe nothing wrong happened in any of the local cases. Wouldn’t it be reassuring for us to know? Don’t we as citizens have rights to know about employees we pay for that in some cases ought to trump the employees’ privacy rights ?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 21, 2023

 

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