Groupspeak is ill-advised ‘protocol’

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Perhaps the most overrated goal in governance is unity.

That’s not to endorse the partisan toxicity that grips today’s Washington, D.C., where Democrats and Republicans plain don’t like each other and seem to exist purely to keep the other side from winning. I despise such partisan hatred.

Rather, I’m talking about this country’s long history of respectful, vigorous dissent and competing ideas. Be very suspicious of governing bodies, especially those elected by the people, that see unanimous votes as a badge of honor, and debate as some kind of affliction.

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Much ado was made at a recent Isle of Wight County School Board meeting over the “protocols” that members adopt annually to govern their activities. An instruction to use the phone, rather than email, to communicate with one another and with the superintendent was called out as an effort to dodge the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Whether so intended or for other reasons, phone conversations certainly make for less transparent governing.

But more troubling to this pundit on the protocol list is one that forbids the elected board members from addressing citizen or staff concerns at meetings. Instead, board members are to defer to the superintendent or his designee, who will “craft a written response” on behalf of the board.

If enforced, the rule would have a chilling effect on elected officials’ ability to speak directly to the people who elected them, or to disagree with the consensus of their colleagues.

No elected official should ever abdicate the right to speak freely in a public meeting and especially assign that responsibility to an unelected official. To do so is for the proverbial tail to wag the dog.

School Board service is thankless. I get it. Many people just want to whine and moan. Some like to throw verbal darts. It’s bound to be exhausting at times.

Citizen comments at board meetings have been especially acrimonious during the recent row over IWCS’ equity and inclusion movement, although, for the record, the board’s protocols document predates that controversy. Nothing has been newly drafted to target Carrsville District representative John Collick Jr., who was elected on a platform of opposing social engineering in public schools.

But Collick is a good current example of one who is unlikely to agree with “crafted” written responses by the unelected superintendent.

Such groupspeak has no place in elected service. Officials who are willing to play by the rules of basic decorum should be able to say what they think, especially when it’s contrary to the majority view. And the majority should embrace dissent, not stifle it.


Steve Stewart is publisher of The SmithfieldTimes. His email address is