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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Editorial: On service in the public interest
Editorial File

When it comes to leading and guiding community organizations, Niagara-on-the-Lake is fortunate to have scores of volunteers who give of their time, energy and expertise.

The people behind the town’s many community groups, agencies and governance boards in many cases are the backbone of their organizations.

Most toil in anonymity, known only to those who have a direct interest in the groups these people help run.

But sometimes these volunteers find themselves in the spotlight unexpectedly, forced to deal with controversial, even uncomfortable, situations that they might prefer were never in the public eye.

But there’s the rub for a lot of these organizations. Many are wholly or partially funded from the public purse or report directly or indirectly to public bodies, such as the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

In that regard, the decisions, debates, meetings and plans of these groups are and should be subject to public scrutiny.

Obviously, there are some limits — something we’ve been reminded about twice in recent weeks.

Last month, after chief librarian Cathy Simpson’s opinion piece about Freedom to Read Week appeared in The Lake Report, she was fired by the volunteer board that oversees the NOTL Public Library.

And just two weeks ago, the NOTL Chamber of Commerce and Tourism NOTL suddenly parted ways with its CEO, Minerva Ward.

These are personnel matters and thus are shrouded in secrecy because that’s how such matters typically are handled.

Those on the outside are left not knowing what really happened nor full details about what factors led to a dismissal or a resignation.

And, unfortunately, in both cases, NOTL being a small town, there has been a lot of speculation about “the real story.”

Despite the public nature of the work they do, neither the library board nor the chamber owes the public a detailed explanation about a personnel situation. That’s the way the system works and we respect it.

However, we feel the people leading and working for such organizations need to remember that transparency and openness should remain hallmarks of their operations.

To be honest, as a media organization, until Simpson was fired, we never paid any attention to meetings of the NOTL Public Library board. There just was no news to report from the board’s meetings.

That changed with Simpson’s firing and last Wednesday evening the library board convened for its first monthly public meeting since her departure.

The Lake Report decided to send a reporter to cover the meeting, in case anything newsworthy occurred.

A day or so prior to the meeting, we were told that, because the room where the meeting is held is tiny, only a handful of outsiders are permitted and they must register in advance.

The room was now decreed full and we were out of luck, but could talk to the chair afterward if we wished. No livestream of the meeting was available.

We were told other local media accepted that explanation, but we did not. Without trying to sound too self-righteously indignant about it, we told co-chair Daryl Novak that was unacceptable and we would be sending a reporter.

It was a public meeting of the public library board, after all.

In the circumstances, it is surprising that the board or library staff didn’t recognize there would be greater public and media interest in the board’s deliberations immediately after the firing of the CEO.

Thankfully, after some to and fro, Novak agreed to make it work and our reporter was on hand to freely take in the meeting, interview staff and board members, take photos and produce a story for our website and this week’s paper.

A tempest in a teapot. A bit of inside baseball. But crisis averted.

We were able to report on the gathering. The public interest was served.

However, it is a gentle reminder to all who work in the public realm that the public interest always comes first.

And we respectfully suggest perhaps the library board could try to find a bigger room.

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