Don’t hide, the public deserves the truth

Published 9:32 am Friday, April 21, 2017

In all the years I’ve been a reporter, one of the more frustrating things I’ve come across is the tendency of public bodies to restrict information regarding miscreant employees under the term personnel matters.

I’m not talking about situations where some employee has been disciplined for insubordination or goofing off on the job, but rather where the employees commit more serious offenses like taking money or stealing, misusing or damaging public property. The type of offense that if were done by Joe Citizen would be on the front page or the crime section.

We have in the past few years had several situations where public employees have been caught misusing public property or equipment for their own use, sometimes operating equipment while under the influence of alcohol, or for their own personal gain to help some business they operate on the side.

And when confronted and asked about the incident, the first words out of an official’s mouth is “it’s a personnel matter and we can’t discuss it.” The board goes into executive session, and the public cannot find out about it for at least 30 days, when the board minutes, including the minutes of the executive session, become public record. And even then, the full story of the employee’s misconduct is not fully known.

Hiding behind “it’s a personnel matter” is not going to put whatever incident occurred out of sight and out of the public’s mind. Vicksburg is a small community, and news of an incident hits the streets quickly.

That means people are talking and the rumor mill is operating at full speed putting out a lot of incorrect information.

I’m reminded of a shooting case I covered in north Alabama involving two teens who had a suicide pact. The girl shot herself. Her boyfriend couldn’t go through with his part of the deal, and sat in a car on the school parking lot with a gun to his head until police talked him out of it. All during the incident and for days after, the rumors flew, with topics ranging from a racial conflict to a mass shooting. All the time, the police and sheriff’s department and the school system, refused to answer basic questions — answers that could have stopped and refuted the rumors.

In some respects, the decision by local governments to hide behind “personnel” when an employee’s actions stretch into a violation of the law does nothing to calm rumors.

Instead of hiding, officials should come out and tell people the truth. It’s not a matter of giving sordid details. It’s a case of “this is what happened, this is how it happened, this is how the individual will be punished and this is what we plan to do to prevent something like this in the future.”

To do otherwise cheats the taxpayer and harms other good employees, who could be affected in the public eye by what one bad employee did.

Our officials owe us and their employees that much.

John Surratt is a staff writer for The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at john.surratt@vicksburgpost.com.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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