February 27, 2013
The word ‘collaboration’ is a bit of a running joke in the newsroom.
There is nothing wrong with the word itself, or the practice it represents. We just find it funny that it appears in a quote in our newspaper seemingly every day, whether someone is touting the collaboration taking place between Wasco and Sherman County, Google and the school district, government and the private sector or mental and physical healthcare providers.
There are certain buzzwords public figures adore, and collaboration is certainly one of them. Others on the list include community, outcomes, partners, mutual understanding, public support, success, common ground, future meetings, further discussion, carefully consider, reach out, study, consultant, advisory committee, recommendations, concerns, positives, streamline, cost-saving measures, do more with less, grant application and “we need more money from the state.”
Throw them all together in a bag with a few proper nouns, shake it up, dump it out and congratulations — you have yourself a public meeting story.
One thing that drew me to the journalism profession was the variety the job offers. The news is always changing — except when it isn’t. Discussions at public meetings seem to all follow the same format: “We need to discuss this problem, but let’s point out that it’s not really as bad as it seems. Other towns are worse. And if you don’t count factors X, Y and Z we would be fine. Still, we will direct the staff to bring us additional information next month so we can come up with a plan.”
At the next meeting they always plan to address the problem by: A) Hiring a consultant B) Collaborating with community partners C) Reaching out to the public (They just don’t understand!) D) Creating a committee E) All of the above
There is a rare breed of journalist we call “meeting junkies” who love these discussions, but for most reporters it’s our least favorite part of the job. We do it, however, because it’s important. In all honesty, most of us wouldn’t be at the meeting if we weren’t getting paid to cover it, so we hardly expect the rest of the world to forgo a quiet night at home after a long day of work so they can sit through three hours of city council discussions that may or may not have much effect on them. To those of you who do join us in the audience on a regular basis: we salute you for your dedication.
I’m reminded those long hours in hard chairs scribbling down notes about collaboration are worth it whenever someone stands up to make a public comment and tells a governing body that they are at the meeting because they have strong feelings about an upcoming decision they read about in the newspaper. It is worth it when I overhear a parent make a comment about what they read the school board is up to or when a public official in one meeting says they changed their mind on an issue based on what they read about another board’s decision.
Some of these meetings are long. Really long. I’ve attended county commission meetings that went for six hours, and school board meetings often stretch past 10 p.m. when there is an executive session.
Still, I stick it out, because the agenda doesn’t always give a good idea of what’s to come (note to public agencies: If your agenda consists of the generic titles “Consent agenda, old business, new business, staff report” every month you’re doing it wrong).
Sometimes the meetings are incredibly yawn-inducing, and I come away with little to report despite an agenda that seemed promising. Other times a fiery public commenter generates some excitement, an audience member storms out of the room shouting “What a joke!” or an innocuous-sounding agenda item turns into an intriguing discussion with big implications for the public.
If things do turn exciting, we’ll let you know.