Last week people in Sevier County received a mailer from the county concerning the bond election for a portion of a recreation/community development center.
One side of the mailer gave the basic facts of the project, which is something that is clearly in the purview of the county commission. Throughout this process, commissioners have said many times they are obligated to remain neutral.
The facts are neutral. It will cost X amount and it will result in Y amount on an average homeowner’s property tax per year.
Facts are neither pro nor con; they are simply the facts.
However, the flip side of the mailer was an attempt to address the pros and cons of the center. This is something commissioners cited as being required by state law.
Unfortunately, this state law put the commission in a bad spot.
While the intent of this law is to help by providing contrasting views on bond election, it inherently causes challenges for bodies that are trying to stay neutral.
It started with a pro statement signed by the commission. The majority of this statement went through the basics of the facts, with a brief paragraph at the bottom spelling out potential benefits.
Then the remainder of the flyer, approximately 2/3rds, was given over to a single resident who is strongly opposed to the project. The same resident was given space for both a rebuttal to the commission’s statement and his own separate statement against the bond. The commission chose not to write a rebuttal to the con statement, citing time constraints.
The amount of space given to one resident on the taxpayer dime may give some the impression of a lack of impartiality.
This is unfair for proponents of the facility, who were not given equal space or consideration in the mailer.
The problem doesn’t have anything to do with who authored the opinion or what it was. It isn’t even that the pro and con statements were out of balance.
The problem is that the county should have been allowed to shy away from distributing opinion in any form. It should have just been allowed to let the facts speak for themselves.
It is inappropriate for a declared neutral government entity to have to pay for the distribution of opinions of one of its residents. When it’s required to broadcast opinions, the county is put in a compromising position. Some are going to assume the county is working against the proposal in publishing opinion pieces.
This doesn’t mean as elected officials commissioners are not entitled to their opinions. In fact, the very reason we elect people is because we align with them and want to hear their opinions stated loudly, clearly and publicly.
The unfortunate reality is that due to time and financial constraints, the county’s mailer was a one-shot deal, and citizens in favor of the bond issue felt locked out of it.
In contrast, The Reaper has printed both pro and con opinions in its letters to the editor, and there’s always a next edition in which to respond. On social media, people have an immediate forum to respond to opinions they don’t agree with.
Those for or against an issue are free to create and mail their own piece, put up signs, make phone calls, send texts, post on social media, whatever, but not on the government’s dime.
The point is there are plenty of avenues open to people to voice their opinions.
It’s a fairness issue. When the county is required to disseminate one person’s view, there is always going to be the danger of someone or some group being excluded.
Government entities have an obligation to be open and transparent; to provide information to both the press and the citizens at large. However, there are plenty of other forums open and available for the expression of opinion.
It should not be the state’s, the county’s or the taxpayers’ job to pay for the mass distribution of a persuasive argument for or against a bond.