Editorial: In government, the public’s trust is everything

In Greenport, the circumstances surrounding the upcoming election on March 21 — and the question of whether seven candidates will have their names on the ballot — grows messier by the hour. Village government has handled this situation so ineptly that we wonder if it is capable of governing at all.

If a small village with an extraordinarily rich past can’t operate by the book to run a legal and fully transparent election, it’s probably incapable of meeting its residents’ other needs as well.

But one truth has emerged: This was all avoidable. 

And that brings up perhaps the most important point, that public trust has been eroded. For that alone, village officials should be ashamed.

On the larger issue of transparency and public trust in government, the lessons that come out of Greenport Village apply to officials at any level of government. If they can’t or won’t tell us the truth in a post-truth America, they need to be kicked to the curb. Starting over with a new board might not be such a bad idea for Greenport.

Much may change in the days ahead. But however this story evolves, the village, its residents and the candidates did not have to go through this.

Many people in Greenport have settled into their positions, which come down to something along these lines: The paperwork foul-up was the village clerk’s fault. As the village election official she knew what had to be done – why didn’t she put out a booklet or even an email to the candidates with a check list of what they had to do by a certain deadline? 

And if what they had to do was unclear, or confusing, why not hold a seminar on the finer points of holding a village election? Call in the candidates, put the requirements up on a screen, and go through it? Call it, If you want to run for office in Greenport, here is what you have to do.

Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it?

It is fair to ask if she was concerned or even aware that only two of the nine candidates had submitted an acceptance letter by the deadline. 

It is fair to ask why incumbent candidate Mayor George Hubbard Jr. and members of the village board didn’t insist that the required procedures and election law be followed and direct the clerk to send out information to the candidates. Where were they in all of this? It doesn’t seem fair to leave them off the hook.

Another position says: What about the candidates? Shouldn’t they have asked questions about what was required of them? Well, yes. But by the facts as we now know them, they did make those inquiries. Some said they went to the clerk to go over things and she refused to engage with them. If true, that’s inexcusable.

Therefore, we are talking about two possibilities: Either rank incompetence (not a good thing in any government, big or small), or some level of conniving.

Perhaps this question should also be raised: Who would benefit from leaving the seven candidates off the ballot? Did any of the players in this drama have a particular horse in the race?

When this story broke last week, we thought this was amateur hour in the village of Greenport. Perhaps that’s no longer accurate. They’ve moved well past amateur hour.

Let the voters pick the winners on March 21. After that, the board and mayor, whoever they are, need to do three things: Find out what happened, name who is responsible and establish practices that prevent it from ever happening again.

Greenport Village officials have work to do to restore the public trust.