How can a newspaper print the truth about public issues when public officials refuse to respond?

 

By Robert Stevens

Managing editor

8-4-2016

 

During my time working at the Messenger, I’ve found one of the most difficult challenges my colleagues and I face is poor cooperation from certain public officials as we try to do our jobs.

Journalism, at its core, is the dissemination of truth to the public. We deal in words, and any true journalist cares that their words ring of truth.

But it’s hard to get the truth when elected or appointed public officials refuse to communicate with us or deliberately make public records difficult to get.

Beyond my own reporting and writing, I manage our full-time editorial staff and the freelance writers who contribute to the Messenger. I give them writing assignments and offer direction when they hit roadblocks on their path to the truth.

A day rarely goes by when one of my writers doesn’t say to me, “I have left messages and emails all week with (insert public official’s name here) and they have not returned any of them.”

This is certainly not always the case. A number of public officials in Sanpete not only know when the law requires them to cooperate with the media but are consistently willing to help us report the truth by facilitating access to public records.

Gunnison City Recorder Janell Braithwaite is a perfect example. Whether through a simple phone interview or by providing prompt access to the public documents we request under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), she is consistently helpful.

When communication does break down, the most common reasons are lack of training concerning open records laws and simple unwillingness to cooperate.

Kudos to the town of Mayfield whose mayor, John Christensen, held a training session during a town council meeting to ensure Mayfield’s leadership knew the details of the Utah open meetings and open records laws.

Christensen said he decided to schedule the training because the town recently got a new city council member. The mayor said, “These are good laws, and it’s important that the people running a city or town know them.”

If more leaders made sure training happens, it could save them a lot of headache down the road. For example, controversy erupted over an unadvertised emergency meeting of Fountain Green City Council members that some residents, and even other council members and city staff, called “inappropriate” and “illegal.”

In that case, the issue at hand was minor (a softball tournament). But questions about whether or not the laws were being followed remain.

A surprising number of town administrations are unaware that Utah law requires audio recordings of open public meetings to be made available to anyone who wants them within three days after the meeting.

A number of government bodies across Sanpete County record their meetings on digital recorders and make the recordings available online promptly and free of charge.

But one North Sanpete city requires the person requesting a recording to purchase a new USB thumb drive for each request. City officials claim this practice reduces the potential for the spread of viruses.

Decide for yourself if you think that hassle and expense of providing a fresh thumb drive are deliberately intended to discourage the public and press from asking for the recording, especially considering that the Utah Public Notice website makes it quite simple (and free) to make digital recordings available for download with no risk of virus infection.

Insufficient training in the laws regarding public records is not the only factor limiting the cooperation we get from public officials. We deal with officials who make a conscious effort not to respond to any of our questions or who refuse to call us back altogether.

This happens frequently. It’s frustrating.

I realize it is possible that those who refuse to participate in even the briefest of inquiries might have a semi-legitimate reason to not cooperate with us. Maybe they had a bad experience with the press before. Maybe something got printed by us or some other newspaper that wasn’t accurate. Or maybe even if it was accurate, they perceive it as having had a negative effect on them, professionally or personally.

Even if that is so, all of us are only human and are merely trying to do our job. The best way to make sure something that goes to print is accurate is to fill our Messenger reporters in on the truth.

If something has the potential to impact the citizens of Sanpete County, we want to report it. Please, I say to all you public officials out there who don’t feel like getting us those documents, or don’t have 5 minutes to answer a couple questions: “Don’t give it to us; give it to the public you serve, through us, whether you be elected, appointed or hired.”

Once, I overheard a conversation Messenger publisher Suzanne Dean was having with a public official who was reluctant to give details on an impending fee increase.

Dean quoted John Milton. “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

That stuck with me, and at the core of that quote is an implication. If you are not doing anything wrong, the truth can set you free— at least from the barrage of calls, emails and voice mails left on your phone, either by me or one of my determined and persistent reporters.