It’s never really a good thing when government limits access to the people it serves. But that’s happening in a couple of unusual instances that serve only to raise questions about what is actually going on in our town halls.
In Knightdale, where the town hired a public information officer a few years ago, supposedly to make it easier for people to get information about the workings of town government, access to town staff has been limited to that public information officer. The town pays more than $75,000 per year for what essentially amounts to a gatekeeper.
No longer is it permissible to call the planning director in Knightdale and ask a question about a planning matter. No longer is it permissible to call the parks and recreation director and ask a question about a parks and recreation matter. No longer, apparently, is it permissible to call the town manager and ask a question. Instead, the public must ask its questions to the public information officer, who then goes to those same people to get the answer. Then, you hope to get a timely response from the public information officer.
Never mind if that process makes it harder to get complete information. When the answer a member of the public receives is incomplete or raises other questions, then citizens can go through the process all over again.
In Wendell, Town Manager Teresa Piner has directed her staff that all questions from the media must be directed to her, this despite the fact that she is so busy the town of Wendell had to create a new $64,000-per-year position to provide Piner with a special assistant to help take some of the workload off her shoulders.
Of course, with the impending retirement of Town Clerk Jonnie Driver, it seems likely that special assistant position might go away soon since the occupant of that post is an imminently qualified town clerk. Of course, if that happens, it will only return more of a workload to Piner who will find herself even more overworked by responding to calls for information which could easily be answered by other members of the town staff.
All this flies in the face of the fact that the town staffs in both Knightdale and Wendell are quite good at their work and capable of explaining the work they are involved in. They should not, of course, attempt to answer questions that are outside their area of expertise, but when it comes to a planning matter, for instance, if the planning director is not capable of answer the public’s questions on such matters, then we would argue that town needs to look for another planning director.
Instead, we think there’s something else going on here. We believe the town of Knightdale and Wendell have set about trying to obfuscate and confuse the public about the work they are doing. Why they would take that route, we don’t know. But if one wonders why people distrust their government, this would be exhibit Number 1.