Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | January 10, 2006

The newspaper reports, then the community talks to itself

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” ~ Playwright Arthur Miller

In a recent column, I complained about one of my frustrations with reading the editorial page: the impracticality of responding to fallacious arguments in columns and letters to the editor.

This time, I’m writing about one of my favorite parts of the opinion page: the fact that it allows the community to talk to itself.

The opinion page of The Dispatch’s sister paper, the Morgan Hill Times, has been hopping over a plan to hold “community conversations,” some of which might be private and closed to the press (city-blessed, city-organized and taxpayer-funded meetings, mind you) to help city council members decide how to close a $1.3-million budget gap.

Even though the meetings will meet the the letter of the Brown Act, California’s open government law (they won’t have to be open or noticed, I’m told, if no more than two of the city’s five city council members attend any one meeting), that’s a far different matter than complying with the spirit of the law:

“… The public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people … do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” ~ Ralph M. Brown Act

I’ve raised concerns about these meetings in my column, The Times has editorialized against closed meetings, and others have spoken out as well. What a great opportunity this is for the city to listen to the community talking to itself and drop the possibility of closed community converstations. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m hoping it does soon, and the city holds only fully open community conversations.

The Dispatch’s opinion page has been filled recently with debate about the selection process used by the Gilroy Unified School District to choose a replacement for the trustee seat held by the late T.J. Owens.

Gilroyans who couldn’t attend were informed about what happened at that meeting because a reporter was there, wrote an unbiased story, and the opinion page debate commenced.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that meeting had been closed to reporters. While it might have made life easier for the trustees who wouldn’t have had to endure public scrutiny and criticisms of their decision and decision-making process (although they’d also have missed the kudos), it wouldn’t have been good for the community.

Had that meeting been closed to reporters, only those residents whose schedules allowed them to attend the meeting would know what occurred. Because a reporter was there, anyone with the time to pick up a paper could find out what happened and, if so inclined, share an opinion.

When I first moved to Morgan Hill in 1996, I subscribed almost immediately to The Times because reading my local community paper was the best way to learn about my new hometown.

Now, nearly ten years later, I’ve worked as a reporter, editor and now as an opinion writer for The Times and its sister papers. I’ve seen from both sides of the equation the important role the papers play in the communities of South Valley.

Whether it’s extending BART to San Jose, casino proposals, perchlorate in the groundwater, closed community conversations or choosing a new trustee, the newspaper has two important roles to play.

The first is informing the community about what’s happening. Unbiased reporting on important local events fills the paper’s news pages.

Then, the community talks to itself about those events on the opinion pages. The opinion pages let people know what their neighbors are thinking about important issues.

One way to take a bigger role in your community is to share your thoughts with your neighbors on the newspaper’s opinion pages. You’ll let the community know how you feel about an issue, liven the debate by contributing a fresh voice, help your newspaper become a more accurate mirror of the community, and experience the pride that comes with having the courage of your convictions.

Hope to see you soon on the opinion page.

“Public opinion shapes our destinies and guides the progress of human affairs.” Politician Frank B. Kellogg

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