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Evasive officials let down their constituents

The lack of responsiveness from local elected officials sought for comment or answers about things like proposed legislation or their positions and beliefs on controversial issues of the day appears to be growing more common.

In just one week, this newspaper has been denied access from elected officials on three separate occasions. Ohio Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, and state Rep. Mike Loychik, R-Bazetta, both declined to answer our calls. Also, Trumbull County Commissioner Niki Frenchko recently announced publicly that she no longer will answer our questions.

Rulli this week and on several previous occasions has not responded to calls, texts, emails or even personal visits from us and his constituents.

Rulli is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 103, legislation seeking to repeal Ohio’s death penalty. Multiple efforts to reach Rulli when we first wrote about the bill this spring, and again last week when we updated the story, have been unsuccessful. We’ve called Rulli’s office, emailed him and even visited the grocery store his family owns in hopes of tracking him down.

In fact, Rulli rarely responds to text messages from our reporters and doesn’t answer his phone when we call. Constituents, likewise, have reported difficulties in getting responses, even from legislative aides in his Senate offices.

Undoubtedly, capital punishment is a controversial issue. Certainly, his constituents deserve to hear why the senator they’ve elected has an interest in repealing it. Indeed, his reasoning may be justified, but without an opportunity to ask, we may never know.

Also last week, Loychik, once again, declined to respond to questions from this newspaper’s reporter about his plans to introduce legislation that would not require members of the Ohio National Guard to get COVID-19 vaccinations. Loychik released the information in a prepared media statement last week.

Let’s face it, all things COVID-19-related are controversial these days. The nation is very divided on this issue, and so we attempted to reach Loychik to ask questions that his constituents might want to know. But, as is typical, attempts to reach Loychik were unsuccessful. In fact, since his election to the House one year ago, Loychik has spoken only once to reporters from this newspaper despite numerous efforts to speak to him. That one time was when we encountered Loychik in person at an anti-mask mandate rally.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised. Loychik never returned our candidate questionnaire when he was seeking election, and he refused to participate in the routine candidate interview with this newspaper’s reporters and editorial board.

Loychik may have very good explanations for the legislation he put forth, but without opening himself up to questions, we may never know.

Then, recently, Frenchko appeared on local talk radio, offering criticisms of this newspaper’s leadership and a reporter, who for several years covered county commissioners.

Dissatisfied with our coverage, Frenchko said she would not be speaking to us anymore and instead would rely on conversations with her constituency via social media.

While use of social media to speak directly to the public may seem easier to elected officials like Frenchko or to candidates seeking office, the problem is it allows for a lack of accountability.

What happens when an official shares inaccurate or unreliable information? Who follows up with the hard questions when an official spins the truth?

The fact is, the value of an unfettered press was recognized by the founding fathers of this great nation hundreds of years ago. Indeed, the most basic ethical tenet of journalism in the United States is that the press remains independent of government.

Realizing that human beings commit wrongs, our forefathers were suspicious of the tendencies of government. Despite imperfections of the press, they knew that maintaining a separation would allow the press to act as a critic, distinct from government.

When that role is eliminated and attempts are made by government representatives to bypass the media via a direct funnel, unfiltered, through social media to the constituency, all critique is lost.

Indeed, things have changed drastically since this nation was formed, but some things have not — including the need to hold accountable our leaders with challenging questions on behalf of the public that put them in office. Too often elected officials — particularly newer ones — forget that the media is speaking not for the media, but for the public. We are seeking answers to questions that the electorate deserves to hear.

When elected officials refuse to answer questions from the media, they are not hurting the media organization. They are failing to serve their constituency.

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