Cafe chats no substitute for Mehlville public forum

By BURKE WASSON

Is the Mehlville Board of Education scared of letting the public speak in an open forum? At least one board member sees that impression.

During a retreat last week, the board again discussed the merits of an open forum to hear residents’ concerns and questions. But instead of hearing them out in the open, board Secretary Micheal Ocello proposed another method that was mostly met with approval — Saturday-morning breakfasts at local cafes.

We agree with Ocello, who has admirably served the district, that these chats would improve communication with the public. But talking over the district’s problems over a cup of Joe is no substitute for a public forum. One-on-one chats have merit, but they also eliminate the accountability a public forum provides.

But in an uncharacteristically puzzling move, Ocello opposes a public forum for two key reasons. First, his concern that the board would not know answers to public questions and that a non-answer would “win the battle” for those asking. Secondly, he does not want the forum to include “political speeches” from “adversaries” and “opponents.”

We find it a bit troubling that Ocello views public interaction as a battle.

We’re also curious who he means when he refers to “opponents.” Are they district opponents? Ocello opponents? Either way, it doesn’t matter.

These unnamed people are still residents. And to some residents who have spoken with us, they would like a public forum.

We thank board President Tom Diehl for introducing the idea to the board and Vice President Karl Frank Jr. for perfectly summing up the board’s sudden stage fright — “You kind of get the impression that, for some reason, we’re scared to have a public forum.”

While some board members, including Diehl, were quick to say last week that other local entities don’t have public forums, the board would do well by looking to those that do. Just ask County Councilman John Campisi and Crestwood Mayor Roy Robinson, both of whom schedule town-hall meetings on a regular basis.

Or the board can turn an Ocello quote on its head. In discussions last week to improve the district’s newsletter, the Mehlville Messenger, Ocello marveled at the “testicle fortitude” of a local alternative newsweekly.

Perhaps Ocello and the board should show that same fortitude by not fearing the open voices of residents and unnamed “opponents.”