HALL: Keeping the public trust

Trust is a word that is overused, certainly understated, and one that has been expanded in its literal definition over the years. The core meaning of the word as it applies to character and confidence is widely preached, but seldom practiced. Through a series of justifications and one weak excuse after another, pure and unadulterated trust is barely recognizable any more.

While this "watering down" practice of what trust is truly all about is dangerous in any example, it can be particularly dangerous if practiced by those who are elected to public office -- and particularly destructive to the constituents whom they allegedly serve.

Trust can also be used in the context of something that is in the care or possession of another. This use of the word could also be applied to the responsibility that citizens provide to elected officials; to care for and maintain our government in an honest and prudent manner. That trust which should be an area of comfort has also taken a fairly severe hit lately based on a very liberal dose of how the practice of protecting that trust should be best applied.

We have seen examples of breaches of trust and a breach of the trust on all levels of government that have provided ammunition to the stereotypical comparisons of politicians to car salesman. Whether the comparisons are justifiable and whether they are legitimate have less to do with fairness and legitimacy than they do with perception. And the perception is that you cannot and should not trust either.

When examples of public service abuses arise, there are many who will immediately jump on the bandwagon and demand that those who have perpetrated the actions be held accountable. Others, who share the frustrations of scandalous activity, are less compelled to sound the horns based on the negative connotations that the publicity of the act may cause to the public entity overall.

It has nothing to do with wanting the scoundrel to be forgiven, but has more to do with what the ripple effects will be based on the public thrashing and dirty laundry being aired for all to see.

Both reactions actually have some merit when it comes to public officials who run afoul of their oaths of office, and in some cases actual criminal violations of the law. How do we as a society punish those folks that have violated our trust as public officials without doing collateral damage to the area in question?

It makes perfect sense for potential businesses and new homeowners, who are looking to relocate, to avoid an area that seems to be besieged by public corruption. Whether these scandals are small or large as to their actual affect on the competence of the government involved, that scope is most always lost in the media coverage that almost always accompanies these situations. Even a minor infraction that has little to do with the overall system, which may in fact be competent, can cause major fallout based on the way that the story is presented.

In other words, it can be possible that our zealousness to see "bad" politicians punished can sometimes cause the public more damage than it may cause to the individual in question. The "bad" politician moves on, albeit hopefully with his or her tail between his or her legs, but the public that demanded this accountability is stuck with the results of his or her actions for what can be years to come. So how do we balance that system whereby we continue to hold public officials' feet to the fire without cutting off our nose to spite our face? This is a question that has no simple answer, but one that we must examine.

The answer has always been and continues to be one that has a foundation based on truth and openness. Smoke and mirrors work well for magicians but have little chance of success when it comes to public service and those who place their trust in them.

Trust is not something that can be deflected by light or veiled by brightly colored silk garments. Its intensity will always bubble to the surface, and attempts to hold it down will only bring attention to the commotion that is needed to restrain it. Truth is something that can sometimes be delayed but can never be ignored. Trust takes a very long time to establish but only minutes to destroy. The road to restoration can often take some very ugly stops along the way, but if we stay the course and work our way back to where real trust resides, it will be found in a manner even stronger than its original state.

We must always rely on the fact that people would rather be a part of a community that will put their own reputation at risk in the name of doing what is right, instead of simply presenting an Oz-like location where the real truth is kept behind a curtain. And isn't this really the type of people that we are truly looking for when it comes to our businesses and residents?

The type of people who realize that a blemish on a place's reputation in the name of public trust is more important than a place that would rather present a shiny front gate, but with hinges that are covered with corruption and deceit? When those gates eventually fall off, which they will, the prospect of recovering any semblance of trust, or truth, is unachievable.

Stan Hall is director of Gwinnett County's victim's witness program. If you would like to have him speak at your next group event, send requests to shallbadgenotes@aol.com.