Public has higher expectations for leaders in Malheur County


Volunteering to be a community leader comes at a cost. Ask anyone who has served on a school board, city council, irrigation district board, and more.

Thank goodness people do raise their hands to serve. They are not typically experts in government. These individuals want to help their communities. They see it as part of life’s duty to volunteer. Some raise their hands a second time, stepping forward to become chair, president, or leader of a government board. That takes an exceptional dose of civic commitment.

These civic wonders are asked to make tough decisions. They decide how many teachers to hire. They decide how much to spend fixing streets. They decide when to regulate business. And far too few people step up for these roles. Too many sit on the benches, sometimes too ready to criticize these citizen governors with a lot of heat and little information. That makes public service unappealing on a lot of days.

Yet civic leadership comes with special duties. The public can and should expect that those who run our local governments can be trusted, will maintain a reasoned temperament, hold fast to integrity, and exhibit a willingness to hear all voices. Civic leaders have to be advocates without malice. They must exhibit civility in the face of provocations that tempt retorts. These leaders set the course of their communities, and citizens have to – always – have faith they are setting the right course.

Paired with that authority is transparency. When volunteers accept a government position, even if only part time and unpaid, they give up some of their privacy. People will look at them and their conduct through a filter of public duty. Citizens expect more and better conduct of their public officials, elected or otherwise. Without those expectations, government would be a chaos of competing and sometimes illegal personal interests. The public oversight is key to holding officials in check.

Two Ontario leaders overlooked those expectations recently. They engaged in conduct that drew sharp rebuke from some in the community. They reacted not with apology but by contending their actions were private conduct that was no one’s business.

Charlotte Fugate, the former Ontario city councilor, is apparently a passionate supporter of the city’s proposed sales tax. In a stunning act, she ripped down an opposing political sign – from inside a private business, in public view of customers. She also quizzed people at another local business about their display of anti-tax signs. Fugate told the Malheur Enterprise that the incidents were no one’s business and she wasn’t going to talk about them.

In another instance, Marty Justus, Ontario city councilor, took to Facebook recently to call on people to focus their attention on a local business manager. He was attempting to mobilize his Facebook fans to pressure the manager to delete from a social media account a post that was not an opinion, not a rant, but a news story. He later justified his behavior as that of a private citizen, not a public official. He doubled down in a recent letter, declaring “It is my personal right to ask that that inflammatory article be taken down.”

The problem for Fugate and Justus is that they function in the public eye. They can’t, they shouldn’t, expect citizens to parse when they are a public leader and when they aren’t. When you accept public duty, you are always a public figure and as a result, conduct can be fairly judged against expectations of public servants.

By most accounts, Fugate and Justus do care about their community. They do volunteer their time. They err, though, in excusing questionable conduct as a private matter. They should exhibit another trait of public leadership – a willingness to admit a wrong. The community likely would easily forgive their behavior after an honest apology. They both had the opportunity to demonstrate another virtue of public leadership: humility. Instead, they stood defiant. That erodes any claim they make to, above all, represent the best interest of their community. — LZ