When a public hearing is announced, the expectation is that whatever is discussed is to be talked about in a public forum. And although at many public hearings newspapers are oftentimes the only members representing the public, the hearings are open to all.

The U.S. Department of Justice, however, appears to think that its internal rules can apply to a public airing of the important issues, rather than the hearing be on record so that light could be shown on what is happening with our city government.

Matthew Beaton, a resident of New Iberia and reporter for The Daily Iberian, on Tuesday attended a public meeting that was advertised in the city’s publication of record (this newspaper), about hiring practices of the New Iberia Fire Department. The accusations of bias are serious and should concern this community. If proven true, it would reveal an ugly part of our community that the whole community should see and desire to change. If proven false, it should be shown to the community that such charges were unfair.

What’s disturbing is that the Department of Justice attorney who led the hearing singled out the press and demanded it make no recording nor quote her in a story. Under the attorney’s rules, the press could quote anyone else who spoke, except her, the person who ran the meeting.

That seems in opposition to the meaning of a “public hearing.” It would seem that what was spoken by anyone in a public setting could have been heard by anyone who chose to attend. At least one other person who was neither part of the fire department nor part of any media company was at the hearing to observe. No attention was drawn to anyone else. Why stifle the only observer who can share with the community what is happening so that it can judge for itself the issue at hand.

The threats of not wanting “to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side” are unbelievable. Why would any government agency threaten its citizens at all, much less on an issue that is clearly no concern of national security?

Beaton did make calls about these supposed rules to the Department of Justice in Washington and was told that the person reached was not the one to whom we needed to talk, but that someone would be contacting him. As of Thursday morning, we are still awaiting the call.

All this goes to show how important are public notices. If, as the attorney claimed, other newspapers in Louisiana simply rolled over and did as she asked at other public hearings, it is all the more important that citizens pay closer attention to what its government is doing.

JEFF ZERINGUE

MANAGING EDITOR

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