Recently, the words “In God We Trust” were placed prominently on the walls of the Surry County courthouse.
Normally, I would take issue with such language being placed on a public building. I am a true believer in maintaining a separation between church and state.
Whether it’s true or not, “In God We Trust” is the national motto. That’s what makes placing it on a public structure — one paid for by the tax dollars of Christians, Muslims, Jews, probably some Buddhists, no doubt a few agnostics and many atheists — acceptable in my book.
The language being placed on the building isn’t important, however. In fact, it’s not even newsworthy.
The matters which are newsworthy are those which take place in the building, not the words pasted on it.
That’s why I must question the priorities of a public official working in that building.
Recently, the Surry County Clerk of Court made it a point to go before county commissioners to thank them for allowing “In God We Trust” to be placed on the Surry County Courthouse.
That was the sole purpose of Teresa O’Dell’s trip to the podium during that public forum portion of a Surry County Board of Commissioners meeting.
The meeting came on the heels of O’Dell’s department either botching or actively interfering with multiple Mount Airy News inquiries into the case of former commissioner Paul Johnson.
When we, as newsmen or women, walk into a public office, we are more than just us. I’m not Andy. I’m a guy representing in excess of 20,000 readers. I’d also imagine most of those readers are voters.
Those folks are entitled to nearly every shred of paper in O’Dell’s office. Literally, everything one does as a public official is the public’s business.
If you haven’t been following, in short, we received little to no cooperation when we were looking for information regarding one of Johnson’s surprise court appearances. By surprise, I mean the appearance didn’t even appear on the court calendar.
As emails obtained by way of a public-records request show, the clerk of courts knew about the appearance and a mysterious motion which was filed.
However, inquiries were met with dumbfounded looks and answers of “well, I don’t see anything in the file.”
By way of text messages also obtained in the records request, we do know she was monitoring whether our reporter was in the courtroom. That seems odd and not becoming of a person in O’Dell’s capacity.
Proceedings in open court — and open government as a whole — is an important concept which has allowed our democracy to survive and thrive.
When a public official attempts to cover up public documents or happenings or even just isn’t forthcoming with facts and details about what we, the representatives of tens of thousands of readers, are asking that spits in the face of democracy and our nation’s values.
It’s outright dangerous.
Her actions call everything in the office into question. Would she remove a notice of divorce for a friend who didn’t want it published from the pile I check every couple of weeks? Might she lose paperwork vital to a case of somebody she doesn’t like?
I can’t say. I can say my trust level sure plummeted.
O’Dell seemed to think it was important to go before commissioners to thank them for allowing four words to be placed on the building she disgraced with her actions.
She ought to be concerned about how her office, whether through incompetence or an active cover-up, failed to be forthright with the people she is supposed to serve.
I have nothing personally against the clerk. She may be doing good things in every instance besides the aforementioned issue.
I do, however, take huge issue with hiding any matters from the folks who pay the bills in Surry County.
Whether it’s a board trying to keep an embarrassing personnel matter from the residents or a governmental entity purchasing property behind the backs of its taxpayers, it all chips away at the public’s trust.
I guess I’ll just have to put my trust in God. It may be better put there than in the hands of public officials.
Andy is a staff writer and can be reached at 415-4698.