Yesterday, the Times blasted a candidate for refusing to answer questions posed by the Editorial Board. Refusing to attend your editorial board interview is like applying for a new job, but refusing to show up for your job interview. No employer would consider hiring a potential employee who has the audacity to refuse to attend the job interview.
One of the most essential obligations of public service is to be accountable to the public, and the central feature of accountability in our democracy is responding to the questions posed by the press. Every job comes with obligations. You earn your pay by meeting those obligations. If you want to earn a public servant's pay, and hold a position of public trust, but refuse to be accountable, you are asking to get paid without doing the work that you are paid for. We rightly criticize teachers if they don't teach effectively, but still want to earn their pay. But a public servant who refuses to be accountable to citizens, is committing the same offense: he is asking to receive a public servant's pay without taking on the responsibilities that come with the job.
The St. Cloud Daily Times holds interviews for all local candidates. This year, school board interviews took about an hour and one-half. In addition to the editorial board of the times, a Times employee not on the news staff and a citizen member participated in the interview. A reporter attended as well. All candidates answered the same questions. We had an opportunity to discuss topics of our choice at the beginning and end of the interview. In addition, each candidate met for about an extra half hour with a reporter and answered questions before a video camera, and the tape of the interview will be posted on line, so that there is no question what we said. In my opinion, attending these interviews is an essential job qualification.
One of the most sacred obligations of public servants is to recognize who they work for--the people. In a fascist or communist country, public officials don't have to answer tough questions. The dictator of North Korea isn't a servant of the people of Korea, and for that reason, if a newspaper reporter asks him a question he doesn't like, he refuses to answer When public officials refuse to hold themselves accountable, they are behaving like the people are their servants, rather than the other way around. Sure, there are lots of times when I get ticked off at those pesky newspaper reporters and editorial writers. Over the years, they haven't always been kind to me, and I get pretty ticked off when they write an editorial or newspaper article that criticizes me or the positions I hold. No matter how upset I get, however, I have to remind myself that we live in a country where the government officers are servants of the public, and not the other way around.
This issue has nothing to do with what a candidate thinks about race, or about taxes, about immigration or about the quality of public education. That's where I part company with yesterday's editorial. It has nothing to do with whether you are a liberal or a conservative, a tea party proponent, or a member of the Green Party. A candidate for office who presumes to run for office but refuses to answer questions from the press is claiming the right to hold office without doing the duties of the office. He wants to get paid, but he doesn't want to be accountable. You wouldn't hire a doctor who refuses to check your pulse or who doesn't use a stethoscope. Why would you hire a public servant who claims that he isn't accountable to you.
In the last couple of years, a number of candidates across the country have increasingly chosen to claim the right to ignore questions from people with whom they disagree. These candidates, whatever their philosophy, are advocating for something other than constitutional democracy. They want to hold a public trust, but they assert that they can choose to hide under a rock from the people, just because it makes them uncomfortable to have to answer a hard question. Sometimes the reason that they give is that the questions are not fair. Sometimes they claim that the questioner is asking the wrong questions. And sometimes, they claim that the questioner is too liberal, too conservative, or too pro-business, or too pro-labor. When a person aspires to be a public servant, they have made a choice to be accountable and take some tough questions. If you start down the road to public service by believing that you aren't accountable, or that you are only accountable to the people you agree with, you are headed down the wrong road. When you get elected, you are sworn to serve all citizens, not just some.
Being accountable is not just a public responsibility, it is an important part of making sure that you do your job as a public servant well. Listen. Unless you are really careful, getting elected to public office can be hazardous to your common sense. If you win an election, you are in danger of starting to think that, well, I got elected, I work hard, I know a whole lot more than everybody else, so why should I have to listen to those people who are foolish enough to challenge my opinion. The truth of the matter is that no matter how smart you are, no matter how much you work at it, no matter how much you think you know, you cannot do your job well unless you are constantly listening and examining. The biggest mistakes are made when we are the most certain that we are so right that anybody who disagrees with us is stupid or uninformed. Getting elected does not make you smarter: it makes you accountable.
I work very hard for what I believe in, sure. I have strong opinions, yes. But the moment that my strong opinions lead me to think that I can ignore my responsibility to answer to the press, or to individual citizens, then I'm headed down the path ignoring my public responsibilities.
This isn't about who is smart and who is not. You can be a public servant with a high school diploma or with a PhD, but if you refuse to hold yourself accountable, you make yourself ignorant, because the process of engaging in dialog and answering questions is an essential component of understanding what you need to know to do your job. Countless times, I've gotten a pesky call from a reporter from the Times, and it is actually that question that has caused me to realize that there's something more to an issue that I need to understand. When I don't know the answer to a question from a reporter, that's a sign that I'm not ready to vote, and I need to do some more homework. If you don't have the spine to take a tough question from a reporter, then you don't have what it takes to be a public servant, whatever your politics.
The longer that I'm on the school board, the more I become convinced that public servants do their job way better when they have an open mind to other points of view and new information. And if a person who aspires to public service is unwilling to subject himself to hard questions when he is running for election, then there isn't much hope that the person is going to be accountable after his or her election. There are too many elected officials who only listen to the people who they talk to over coffee at the local cafe or pub. There are two many elected officials who listen only to a few business leaders at the chamber of commerce, or to a few labor leaders. You can't do an effective job if you choose only to listen to the people who agree with you, or who tell you what a great job you are doing. Not too long ago, a citizen woke me up to a problem in the way that the district handled the playground construction projects. I didn't like what I heard, but I needed to hear it. If you close your mind to people who disagree with you, or who ask you tough questions, you lose the ability to do the job that you've been paid to do.
Maybe you think that a candidate agrees with you. But if the candidate refuses to answer questions, how the heck do you really know. Any fool can claim that he's a conservative, a liberal, a tea party backer. Any fool can claim to dislike immigrants, or to be friends of the oppressed. Any fool can claim anything. Part of the way that democracy works is that when we aspire to public service, we have to stand up and take the heat. and account for what we believe.