Elephants are in the room at many public local government meetings in the Lehigh Valley.
Just a few years ago, only one or two were present. But now there sometimes are as many as a half dozen.
Like all elephants in rooms, they remain silent and mostly are ignored, as perhaps they should be.
But they can be useful, powerful or even dangerous.
Those elephants, of course, are journalists.
Reporters, photographers and videographers at public meetings are in awesome positions of responsibility. Often within hours, we report to thousands of readers and/or viewers about the most important things that happened at those meetings... or at least what we think were the most important things that happened.
One of the more common frustrations of local journalism is when the folks at the front of the room conduct their business as if they don't know people -- including elephants -- are in the audience. Or as if they don't care. They vote on things with no discussion or explanation and don't share copies of whatever they are voting on with the public.
At a school board meeting not long ago, a member of the board said this about the district superintendent's report: "If the superintendent were providing information for the public in a form that the public would understand, I think it would take more context and more time and effort to make sure the message was crisp and communicating exactly what is intended."
So what? As long as one member of the public is sitting in the audience at a public meeting, don't educators especially have some ethical obligation not only to educate students, but the public as well?
And shouldn't they do that even if no one is in the room except a couple of elephants?
Don't all elected officials in a democratic society have the same obligation to clearly communicate what they are doing in a public meeting?
Too often, clear communication is lost in jargon at school board and other municipal meetings. What those in the audience hear is fragmented and, at times, perhaps intentionally obscure.
And no one is permitted to just shout out: "What's going on here?"
The amount of information shared with the public at public meetings varies widely right here in the Lehigh Valley. Some local governing bodies are far more open than others.
Among the most transparent are Allentown City Council and Lehigh County Commissioners. They provide the public with copies of nearly every document they will be discussing and/or voting on that night. And they invite comments from the public on non-agenda items at the beginning of each meeting-- which sometimes can continue for an hour, even though each speaker has a time limit. They again invite the public to speak just before every vote on an issue.
Among the municipalities I regularly cover, Lower Macungie Township runs a close second when it comes to running open meetings. It does the same thing city council and the county commissioners do, except it does not provide hard copies of all documents to those attending its commissioners meetings.
Some may be surprised to learn Allentown City Council is among the most open, because it recently created a firestorm when its president refused to let people speak about the controversial water and sewer lease. By tradition, council does not permit public comment on bills and resolutions that are being introduced but not discussed -- a tradition that may have to be replaced by a rule, or discontinued.
Anyone who feels stifled at an Allentown Council meeting should go to certain school board meetings, where the public gets only one opportunity to speak. And people who do speak feel like they are talking to an empty room, because they usually get no response from their elected school board members. There is no dialogue.
Even in meetings where officials do invite public comment on each issue before it is put to a vote, by tradition most journalists never ask questions during meetings. Like I said: silent elephants.
Our job is to observe, not to participate. We're there to cover the news, not make the news. We too easily could influence the course of a discussion simply by asking a key question....although we sometimes have to bite our tongues because we wish someone would ask that question.
Those local officials have a captive audience of news people who are there to get a story and will be coming up to them with questions at the end of every meeting, often for clarification about things they said. And things they didn't say.
As soon as meetings adjourn, journalists scramble to the front to ask decision-makers questions before they leave their seats. It reminds me of a deli counter where we should take a number to be the next to be waited on.
I have encountered reporters who don't want other reporters to hear questions they ask, but that seems to be rare. More often, the decision-makers find themselves answering the same questions several times.
Elected officials and their hired managers may be mentally exhausted by the end of a long meeting (and probably a long day). The last thing they may want to do is answer the same questions over and over.
But these days "call us tomorrow" just doesn't work any more, not when young reporters start writing stories on their laptops before a meeting even ends and others among us frequently are writing until the wee hours of the morning to keep up with the competition.
What's worst is when boards and councils immediately rush into private executive sessions of indeterminate length at the conclusion of their public meetings. Journalists have to wait until they return if we want our questions answered. We also have to trust officials when they say no action will be taken in public at the conclusion of their executive sessions or hang around for a long time just to make sure for ourselves.
After 37 years in journalism, I never have understood why an opportunity for media to ask questions is not more formally built right into the system, immediately after public meetings adjourn.
Why not routinely announce "a media briefing will be held immediately after the conclusion of this meeting"? After all, it is in officials' best interest to make sure information is being communicated accurately.
Such a crazy idea may be dismissed as totally unnecessary, and perhaps that is true if there are no problems with meeting coverage. To the credit of the East Penn School District, the superintendent and school board president usually remain planted in their seats long enough to field questions from the media. Others do the same. Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza has even invited reporters with questions into a conference room just off the public meeting room to meet with him immediately after the township commissioners adjourn.
I was surprised when I recently covered a couple meetings of the Warren County Freeholders. The last thing on their agenda was a time for public and media questions. I never saw that on anyone's agenda before.
Distasteful as the thought might be to some journalists, a post-meeting media briefing also gives decision-makers an immediate opportunity to attempt some preemptive damage control. They can try to influence what we will report.
But more important, it helps ensure that what we write is correct. Our questions fill in the gaps regarding what really happened at the meeting.
It's a sad fact that most people don't go to municipal or school board meetings unless they are concerned about a specific issue. But journalists are there -- some of us quietly wishing residents would demand that their elected officials more consistently conduct the public's business in public.