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On TV, a one-sided debate

April 14, 2005

Hagerstown Councilman Lewis C. Metzner on Tuesday took issue with a statement mayoral candidate Richard Trump made about the state of city-county relations.

We expect this kind of back-and-forth during a campaign, but we question whether incumbents should take advantage of the fact that their remarks are carried on cable television during official meetings.

The room in which the council meets is paid for by the taxpayers and the agreement with Antietam Cable that allows council meetings to be televised was negotiated for the benefit of all citizens, not just for office-holders.

The issue was first debated last month after Councilman Linn Hendershot, defeated in the March 8 primary, had some harsh words for the slate of candidates headed by Trump and those who have contributed to it.

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City managers edited Hendershot's comments out of the tape before a replay was aired. At the time, Metzner objected, saying that citizens have a right to hear what elected officials say, no matter what it is.

We yield to no one in support of freedom of speech, but there is a difference between discussing the city's Capital Improvement Program and blasting a political opponent.

Doing the latter during a televised meeting gives incumbents an unfair advantage over their opponents.

There are two possible remedies here. The first would be for the council's members to pledge to keep political remarks out of their televised meetings, at least during the period between when candidates file for office and the election.

The second would be to allow their opponents a similar amount of time, during the portion of the meeting set aside for citizens' comments, to answer any charges.

Elected officials do have a right to answer criticisms of their performance in office. But if they're going to use a televised meeting to do it, the people they're criticizing should also get some time before the camera.

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