OUR VIEW: Michel learns speech bears responsibility

Elected officials have not just a right but a responsibility to speak their mind on matters of public concern, even when those views are unpopular. We have stated on this page time and again that this is a vital necessity to the proper operation of representative government, and have excoriated those public officials who fail to do so.

Too many times over too many years we have seen public officials, particularly at the parish level, go along to get along.

Now, a public official’s actual practice of this philosophy has resulted in discomfort and resulting criticism from some colleagues, as well as elected officials who represent Terrebonne Parish at the state level.

Councilman Gerald Michel wrote a letter that appeared in The Advocate, a newspaper that circulates throughout the state, critical of Gov. John Bel Edwards, accusing him of making crucial decisions – in particular the fate of Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center – based on political concerns. Michel drew on publicly available and well-publicized election data to support his contention that Edwards was using his election performance in various parishes to determine which ones get to keep their charity hospitals. It drew fire from local legislators, from Parish President Gordon Dove, and others involved with delicate ongoing negotiations. Terrebonne Parish was able to parlay political good will over many years in Baton Rouge with the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal. With a new administration installed, officials here acknowledge, completion of critical projects will require cooperation from the new governor. Headway has been made, report some officials, who fear that Michel’s letter could be a stick in the governmental wheel, wiping out or at least causing damage to bridges rapidly built. The fate of the hospital, which hangs by a thread, could be rosier as the Edwards administration continues to crunch numbers.

Michel stands by the letter and says that signing it with his title was essential to its credibility. To be any less upfront and honest in his assessment would be a disservice, in his opinion, to the parish and to his constituents. Based on the Facebook posts that resulted from an online article at www.houmatimes.com, some of Michel’s fans were only too glad to see mud land on the new governor’s eye; several betrayed their true political colors, dragging the discussion into talk-radio style criticism of the administration, which they never did support and in the future will not likely support.

Several things should be noted here. Parish Council Chairman John Navy is likely to back a formal statement from the council distancing itself from Michel’s remarks, amid suggestions that the District 3 councilman’s exercise in expression can too easily be confused as a hostile assessment of Edwards coming from the body itself.

There has been no suggestion of official censure, and we are comfortable with this.

Indeed, we see the overall issue as close to a draw on all sides.

Michel’s critics have quite properly, when asked, provided their views and concerns.

In evaluating the information, we come to a conclusion that Michel, a freshman councilman, could never have believed that his strongly worded letter would portend any good for the parish, or changed the course of what may happen with the hospital for the better. It becomes a case, in our opinion, of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

We also firmly believe that Gov. Edwards, a man who prides himself on honesty and honor, is not so thin-skinned as to allow one councilman’s rant to affect a decision on health care for our parish and region, any more than he would a fit of political pique. It is our hope that Councilman Michel will use whatever criticism comes his way as a lesson in responsible restraint, but not let it dampen his refreshing penchant for speaking his mind from the Parish Council dais. •