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Silence surrounding new city hire is troubling

January 20, 2013

We have no particular gripe with the hiring of Andrew Sargent, who will serve as the City of Hagerstown’s downtown manager. Certainly there is a need for a personalized approach to attracting new commerce into the city and retaining what’s there. We wish Sargent well.

What we do take issue with is the manner in which Sargent was introduced into the new position, which is to say that he wasn’t introduced at all. City staff, or Sargent himself, didn’t appear comfortable making him available for comment until he had a chance to “get settled” into the new position and “up to speed on existing programs and services.”

Presumably, Sargent was conversant in the issues facing the downtown or he wouldn’t have gotten the job. So what is there to settle? Is it really so difficult to come to grips with the state of the city, or is this more of an attempt to make sure Sargent is versed in what he is and isn’t allowed to say?

Maybe this was just a hiccup and not indicative of policy, but it’s discouraging nonetheless.

If this seems to be an overblown concern, it is because we have seen what happens when gag orders saturate a local government — that being the government of Washington County. Suppression of departmental comment there has been stifling, and those who are specifically assigned to act as government-public intermediary do not always have the answers. Frankly, the county is too big and involved for any one person to field all relevant questions in a timely manner.

The irony is that county leaders seem to constantly feel as if their side of the story is not getting out — a side they themselves have actively worked to quash.

Anyone who is a public servant in a management role, and making a top public salary, should be competent, capable and willing to answer questions about his or her area of expertise. And, certainly, city and county department heads with six-figure salaries should welcome questions and not be sheltered from the public spotlight. If they cannot be trusted to speak to the press or the public without handholding, then they should not be department heads.

Ultimately, it is the role of the elected office holders to make sure a free flow of information about local government reaches the citizens’ ears. When we ask questions, we are seeking answers on behalf of our readers, who have a right to know what their government is doing. Stuffing a sock into the mouths of those who serve the citizenry is not only bad public policy, it is an arrogant suggestion that the people do not have the right to hear from those whose salaries they pay.

Moreover, it is usually unnecessary. It is hard to think that there is anything Sargent could say about the relative health of downtown Hagerstown that most residents haven’t already surmised.

At the city level, Mayor David S. Gysberts and Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire have spoken often about transparency and openness. It would be refreshing to see them push city staff in that direction.

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