It might seem a bit counterintuitive given the world as we find it today, but one of the top audience expectations that came out of Valley focus groups prior to the launch of Mahoning Matters was this: Be transparent and apolitical.
That request comes despite an era in which the publishing of almost ANY story is likely to trigger a pro/con debate on President Trump — GM, flooding, plastic bags — on Facebook. My interpretation is that much of the Mahoning Valley audience is — like folks in general — weary of trying to parse through perceptions to glean facts. And folks are bombarded by gimmicks and politics at every level, from partisans on mainstream cable media to social media to that crazy uncle at Thanksgiving.
As I voted Tuesday in Boardman, I confronted an opportunity to ponder whether our various governments have received the same message: How hard is government working to appear transparent and apolitical?
My precinct in Boardman changed a few years ago from a Glenwood Avenue church to township offices on Market Street. When I arrived to vote Tuesday morning, I noticed something curious by the door leading to the township meeting room where voting takes place: A pop-up banner of Boardman Township elected officials. Among the portrait studio-quality faces were two men on the ballot — Trustee Larry Moliterno and Township Fiscal Officer William Leicht.
I‘ve become an expert on these banner devices. We bought the same model to display our logo when we travel to events (you can see it Sunday at Canfield High School for the Canfield Rotary Club's Pancake Breakfast). They consist of a base and a banner that rolls up to be attached to a pole, kind of like an old projector screen. They are easy to set up, take down and move.
However, quoting ORC 3501.35, people are prohibited from engaging "in any kind of election campaigning within the area between the polling place and the small flags of the United States placed on the thoroughfares and walkways leading to the polling place." This might not rise to an exact violation, as I told the township, but it just plain looks bad.
Now, this is nothing against Larry and Bill, and I presume that the banner was simply sitting where it always sat and no one thought better of it. And when I brought it to the attention of township officials, it was moved. Still, should governments dedicated to transparency and remaining apolitical consider such matters before polls opened?
Consider this, too, the next time you go to a gas station: In Ohio, there is a sticker proclaiming every pump is certified by the Mahoning County Auditor. In Mahoning County’s case, it’s Ralph Meacham. Ralph explained the stickers are branded in the same green/blue combination so that his office is identifiable, from pamphlets to pump stickers to the office letterhead. To, of course, yard signs for re-election.
“The color contrast is easily identified and easily seen,” he told me as we discussed that throughout the state’s 88 counties, the fact of who the auditor is dominates the actual purpose of the sticker: to proclaim pumps are certified by the auditor who the state has bestowed the title of “sealer of weights and measures.”
As a result, these really are mini billboards for whomever is auditor. The taxpayer foots the bill.
Conceding my point, Ralph, who is a straight-shooter who always seems to be at work and never fails to return a call, noted, “I wouldn’t be offended at all if the Department of Agriculture took this over. It’s not easy.”
Speaking of the county, here’s one more matter to consider about government transparency and remaining apolitical: Did anyone else receive a glossy, full-color “Inside Mahoning County” mailer a couple of weeks before the election? Mine was labeled “Fall 2019 Issue 5.” Why do I suspect these never get published in the winter or in the spring?
To be fair to the county, there were no county-specific levies or candidates on this ballot, but there was, on the back page, a sort of “2019 Mahoning County Ballot Issue” box featuring what appeared to be a sample ballot for the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County’s levy renewal.
Is there anything inherently wrong with such a mailer? And if there are county ballot issues in the spring or next fall, will we see these reappear? I remain cynical. I do know that these appearing right before the election caused phone calls and some anxious moments for library officials as taxpayers questioned the endeavor (which the library did not seek). I also know that these glossy products cost thousands of dollars of taxpayer money, and there are roughly 10 months a year that are not associated with an election that something like this could be mailed if the effort was purely to inform.
So, where does that leave us, media and government alike? How can we work to be more transparent? How can we act in ways that are more apolitical? I’d love to hear more from you.
MORE THAT MATTERS
As I mentioned, I hope to see you at our booth Sunday from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. at Canfield High School for the Community Showcase. Want to score a free, beautiful Mahoning Matters T-shirt? Be one of the first 10 folks to come to our booth with one of the secret words: “Transparency” or “Apolitical.”
Our website is expanding! On Monday, Mahoning Matters will launch a new feature section, “Movers and Makers.” Each week, we will share the stories of the movers, launchers, entrepreneurs and makers who contribute to the vitality of the Mahoning Valley. This section is supported by our first community partner, Farmers National Bank. We’ll launch more sections in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned.
[EDITOR'S NOTE — In continuing the transparency theme, I misspelled Ralph Meacham's name originally. It is now correct.]