What matters is ‘why’

Bob Bonnar

Like the rest of you, I was relieved when election day finally came and went, and we were finally given a reprieve from campaign politics for a little while.

Unfortunately, my break has been pretty short-lived because a request that I started fielding when people began their campaigns for local office in May has continued beyond the election, so I figured I should probably address it here.

The question I continue to be asked is, “Why don’t you write a story about what the city council does?”

You can substitute county commission, school board, hospital board, fair board or just about any other local board for “city council” because I’ve been asked the same question about all of them.

And the answer to all of those requests is the same:

I can tell you ‘what’ they do, but you already learned that in civics and government class. If you really want to understand what these government entities do, you need to know ‘how’ and ‘why’ they are doing it.

I can confidently say that in the past 20 years we have not only laid out ‘what’ each of these entities does, but also ‘how’ and ‘why’ they did it.

For most of our local government bodies, we have done it repeatedly. When it comes to those entities who are responsible for receiving the largest portion of our tax dollars and providing services to citizens in return — city council, county commission, school board and hospital board — we provide the ‘what,’ ‘how’ and ‘why’ on a monthly basis.

When local governments grapple with an issue that the public shows heightened interest in (or an issue we believe we have a responsibility to raise your awareness of) those stories will even come on a weekly basis. It really won’t do any good for me to tell you what your local governments are doing in any one issue of the NLJ if you won’t read the newspaper every week to understand how and why they are doing it.

There have been a few people in recent months who have told me I’m shirking my responsibility as “the press” in our self-governed community because I didn’t write these stories when I was told I should.

But I would suggest that citizens have a responsibility to expand their knowledge after they’ve taken that last civics or government class in high school, and those who fail to use this newspaper to consistently monitor the activities of their elected and appointed representatives are actually the ones failing to live up to their obligations in a free and self-governed society.

The front page story about the school district’s superintendent evaluation failing to meet the criteria set out by state policy-makers is a good example of the need to develop a deeper understanding of local government and their actions.

If you simply knew ‘what’ happened — that the school board has not to this point evaluated the superintendent in the manner dictated by Cheyenne — you might believe the board or superintendent weren’t doing their job.

But if you took the time to read the story, you know that the superintendent and board have actually favored a form of evaluation that focuses on the community’s expectations — not the state’s. In my mind, the community is far better served by you knowing ‘why’ the story happened because that’s the level of public engagement that makes self-government work.

I encourage those readers who still desire to know ‘what’ our boards do to ask a member of that board because speaking directly to elected or appointed officials is the best level of public engagement of all!


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