Have you ever visited the woods?
Doing so provides the visitor with an immediate decision: Do you follow the well-worn paths or do you strike out on your own? The well-traveled paths can be safe, predictable. Sometimes, when you choose your own path, you’ll discover obstacles.
While Mahoning Matters is striking our own way, we recently traveled a well-worn path yet encountered sadly predictable obstacles.
Since the old Youngstown Vindicator days, reporter Jess Hardin has followed the travails of the Poland Municipal Forest, the needed repairs of the Mauthe Bridge, the work of volunteers and the oversight by Poland Village Council.
The Mauthe Bridge in the Poland Municipal Forest was closed in 2018. Back then, Jess was the beat reporter for the Youngstown version of The Vindicator. A couple of months ago, old sources started asking new questions about the project to replace the bridge, and so Jess started reporting. Like taxpayers and volunteers in the community, she found straight answers to straight-forward questions a bit hard to come by, especially when dealing with elected officials and non-elected village solicitor Jay Macejko.
In a Nov. 21 story, “What's going on with Poland Forest's Mauthe Bridge?," Jess reported that after raising $70,000 for the repair of the Mauthe Bridge, Poland Forest Foundation President Charles Rumberg resigned, chiefly because he was unable to get answers from the village about the future of the project. Village officials were largely unhelpful to our efforts, too.
It turns out that after a complaint questioned whether the new bridge should comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, there was a meeting, apparently in the woods, between the village and some federal officials. Who else was there? No one would say. Members of the public asked and received no answers. Members of the foundation asked, but again, almost no response. We asked. Crickets.
This leaves us to presume that joining the cabal for the meeting in the woods, given the veil of secrecy that developed, was Bigfoot. Or Jason Bourne. We may never know.
One week after that story, there was — ta da! — a well-orchestrated meeting on the night before Thanksgiving, this time to reveal the village would move forward with its plans to repair the Mauthe Bridge under the condition that the bridge deck be widened by 3 inches to make it ADA compliant.
In the end, this was much ado about almost nothing, which is precisely what 3 inches is. But Macejko and team would not go quietly into the good night. After the meeting, the council issued an extraordinary statement aimed at, I guess, finally responding to concerns that the village was unresponsive. This passage brought a smile to this old editor’s grizzled face:
"It is very important for our community and the public at large to know that at no time was there intent to improperly withhold information, seem non-responsive, or be less than transparent.”
(“... at no time was there intent to improperly withhold information …” Except for that part when we withheld information.)
"The simple explanation is that the village chose to work through its attorney to ensure consistency and that we were speaking with one voice when necessary.”
Macejko wanted to let us know that some sort of attorney-client privilege was, for the council, the overriding factor when choosing whether to level with the public.
If this was, say, Moscow or somewhere else that didn’t have a representative democracy, Ohio open meeting laws or a grizzled editor’s face, perhaps that would suffice as an explanation. But allow me to dissect this because Macejko isn’t the first to proffer the notion that it is more important that an elected board get its talking points and decisions together than it is to actually be a deliberative government body that discusses the public’s business in front of the public.
Voters don’t elect solicitors — a fancy name for a lawyer paid $10,500 by the village of Poland. And they don’t really elect a board. Check out any ballot: We elect individuals. Those individuals take an individual oath, and with that oath is the expectation that they make individual decisions to represent those who elect them. They are not obligated to speak as one unified voice, no matter the whims of staff. They have the power. It cannot be transferred or usurped.
Yet, so often we see public meetings that seem perfunctory; like elected officials are going through pre-ordained motions. And these performances whittle away at the fabric of our conceptions of what a real representative democracy ought to look like. Some lawyers have a way of convincing some elected officials that what I just wrote is idealistic blather. And when they do, the result is that the necessary exercise of a covenant called public trust gets reduced to a dull show of impenetrable, unresponsive bureaucracy.
It’s corrosive. It contributes to the notion that our system is “rigged.” It turns off the public at a time that the public needs to be more engaged with government because there are fewer reporters to do that work.
Lastly, perhaps most importantly, we are faced with this stubborn reality: The village council does not own the woods; the village does. While the village council is charged with oversight, the people own the woods. And the people should not be made to feel they have no right to access what’s going with the Mauthe Bridge until everything is spoon-fed for consistency’s sake.
There are not enough lawyers to argue that away.