Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Open, respectful debate important for public trust

On Friday afternoon new Cape Girardeau mayor Bob Fox read a proclamation identifying a long list of city achievements during the mayoral tenure of Harry Rediger, followed by a standing ovation from those packed into City Hall chambers.

Rediger was humble in his response, citing staff and council but ultimately the voters: "Our citizens are our greatest partner. Without their support, their yes votes, these accomplishments would not have happened."

In taking the gavel from Rediger, Fox talked about the advice he would be seeking from Rediger and previous mayors, including Al Spradling and Jay Knudtson who were in the room. He also joked that he expected their advice would come freely, even when he didn't need it.

Fox, too, thanked the voters for their support. And, he said, "I have big shoes to fill."

There is something special about ritual. It lends dignity to our democratic process, and it was heartwarming to see the families of those being sworn in -- Fox, Stacy Kinder, Dan Presson and, for another term, Shelly Moore -- standing by in pride. These are men and women with the best of intentions, seeking to improve our city. Each will face criticism at some point. But let us all recognize that it takes courage and commitment to serve. They're barely compensated ($100 per month for council members; $150 for mayor). And we owe a debt of gratitude to those who step into the arena, making themselves vulnerable, because they want to make a difference for the good.

If you are wont to criticize them, seek first to understand. If you disagree, do it in a way that is productive, which is not personal, and which is not mainly about yourself.

Meanwhile, a message to the new mayor and council members: Democracy works best when information is shared, when deliberations are open, when respect goes both ways. Openness is a form of respect, and it helps educate the public. It makes deliberations better, and it builds credibility and trust. Please do not be seduced by those who counsel that the public will never understand (or worse, that the public is made up of troglodytes), and thus encourage you to keep thoughts and deliberations secret. It doesn't take courage to make decisions in the dark (or through spoke-and-wheel messaging). You have been elected to a public office, and with that comes great responsibility, including an obligation to public dialogue and education.

On Friday morning, hours before the swearing in, Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court Zel Fischer spoke at the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce First Friday Coffee. Among his thoughts, he described how the vast majority of decisions made by the Supreme Court are unanimous, even though the individual judges come from different places and hold different views. And he outlined the power of the court's written opinions: "It's like math class. Not only do we give an answer, but we have to give an explanation for how we got to our answer." He credited that explanation as a reason for the respect others hold for the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Fischer went on to describe that when the opinion is not unanimous, he finds that the arguments made by differing justices is like sharpening iron with iron. Both sides become better and the ultimate decision is better because of the debate.

There is much talk in this town, especially by some of those in positions of power, of "working together," which oftentimes simply means going along with whoever is calling upon others to "work together." Working together, in fact, at its best, means questioning conventional wisdom or presenting different perspectives openly and respectfully. It means considering differing opinions, openly and respectfully.

The original quote about "iron sharpening iron," derives from Proverbs 27:17. The New Living translation reads: "As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend."

A good friend to the community will be the council members, media and public who aren't afraid to sharpen each other -- and who do it respectfully.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and a member of its editorial board.