Citizens have a right to expect courteous treatment from their public officials.
There’s an old argument in representative government about the proper role of elected officials. Are they there to do what voters and constituents want them to do? Or are they there to exercise judgment based on available facts, whether that lines up with constituents’ demands or not?
In these polarized days no doubt most people lean one way or the other. To us, the middle ground makes the most sense. Listen to citizens. But keep an open mind.
That’s because the people rarely speak with one voice and discerning a consensus is frequently impossible. Officials often are lobbied by individuals pushing a particular viewpoint. And, unfortunately, in these hostile times officials too often are berated and belittled by individuals convinced of their own infallibility and contemptuously dismissive of anyone who dares think otherwise.
It’s not easy to be caught in the middle of all that. So we believe elected officials deserve a little understanding from those still willing to extend it. Even the best and most responsive office-holders can’t give everyone what they want.
There is, however, one thing officials can always give.
Which brings us to the dust-up a few days ago between current Beloit City Councilor Mark Preuschl and former Beloit School Board president Pam Charles.
Charles has been an outspoken critic of various actions and inactions by city government related to its response to the coronavirus pandemic. She has questioned transparency as it relates to the crafting of emergency response plans, policies on closing parks and playgrounds, and more. That’s her right as a Beloit resident and citizen.
On the city’s Facebook page Charles commented after the council kept several playgrounds closed: “We seem to be a city that is completely neglecting our children. Shameful.”
Stinging criticism, perhaps. Preuschl took the bait and responded on the platform:
“Why don’t you read and understand before fomenting such controversy? Short sentences: There’s a resolution. Things haven’t changed. It must be revised. At a city council meeting. In the future. Please don’t wreck our city like you wrecked our school district. I am quite through discussing this with you. Go away.”
There is only one word to describe Preuschl’s comment.
Granted, Charles is a previous office-holder and a controversial one at that. Criticism of her former public performance can be considered fair game. In this instance, though, it’s out of context and gratuitous.
As for the rest of the councilor’s post, the tone is mocking and insulting. And no elected leader ever should tell a citizen to “go away.”
Mind you, we are not adopting or endorsing any position advocated by either Charles or Preuschl. Debate about public issues is good and we wish there were more of it, not less.
This, however, should be an absolute expectation: Constituents always deserve courtesy and respect from those elected to temporarily hold public office. If that’s more than a given official can manage, that official should do some deep soul-searching.
Representative government doesn’t work when public officials have a short fuse with constituents. In our view, baseline behavior for office-holders requires better.