Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

Transparency questioned in East Tennessee town

In Advocacy on October 20, 2013 at 6:26 pm

East Tennessee journalist Carolynn Elder, Hawkins Today, is keeping an eye on what seems to be a lack of government transparency in the town of Rogersville. 

In a recent report Elder asked, “Did Rogersville City Council meeting violate sunshine laws?”

The newspaper reported on an executive session convened by the Rogersville Board of Mayor and Aldermen at the behest of the city attorney. A fired police officer had asked the BMA for the opportunity to address the city in the aftermath of his firing. However, before city officials allowed him to speak, the city attorney met with the mayor and council in a private, back room session, even though no lawsuit has been field in the matter. Subsequently, the BMA met in open session heard from the fired officer, James Hammonds, then quickly heard a motion and second followed by a quick unanimous vote to uphold his ouster with virtually no discussion, expect for comments from the attorney himself. 

Elder reporter, “When Director of the Tennessee Transparency Project Jim Zachary was asked to clarify open meetings regulations, he said, ‘Several questions are raised by this situation…The State of Tennessee allows for executive sessions, but only for very specific reasons. A city council may consult with its attorney in private but only to receive information on real or pending litigation. They cannot use the closed-door session to deliberate toward a decision or to discuss what they will do when reconvening in the open public session.'”

Elder wrote, “Zachary said citizens have the right to ask three questions about the meeting. Was this session to discuss real or pending litigation? Was this session limited in scope to the council receiving information from its attorney regarding that litigation? Did the council members deliberate regarding the city’s position on the issues to be discussed in the open session?”

The Tennessee Transparency Project told Elder that if the city council discussed the city’s grievance policy, procedures for hearing the complaint in the open session, or anything not related to legal strategy or information related to the real or pending lawsuit, the so-called executive session was out of bounds, adding, “If the city attorney advised the city council on how to react to Hammonds’ statement, or told them the proper motion and vote after the statement, the meeting would seem to be improper. The State of Tennessee not only requires all votes to be taken in open public meetings, it requires all deliberations to be made in public.”

TTP Director Zachary advised, “While there may be questions regarding the public notice requirement for such a session, because meeting with an attorney may not be considered a “meeting” by the State, in general local officials are best advised to first convene a regular or “special called meeting,” then to recess into executive session and then to reconvene into open public session for deliberation and decision-making.”

In the Hawkins Today article, Elder observed, “The procedure recommended by Zachary is the procedure followed by County Attorney Jim Phillips at Hawkins County Commission and Hawkins County Board of Education meetings.”

Zachary told Elder, “Any attempt by local officials to circumvent the State’s open meeting act should be considered a violation of the act. Hopefully, members of the city council will come forward to disclose to the public any action that may have taken place in executive session that was outside the very limited reasons for a closed-door meeting allowed by the General Assembly.”

NATIONAL NEWSPAPER WEEK: Advocating for transparency is putting community first

In Advocacy on October 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm

As newspaper executives struggle over whether the news should be digital first, tablet first, SMS first or print first, readers know exactly what they want their local newspaper to be — community first.

Reading a newspaper is not like reading a novel, a magazine, a history book, poetry, prose or any other type of literature.

Newspapers are not about what has happened in the past, what is happening someplace else, or what happens in an author’s imagination.

Newspapers are about us.

Newspapers are about our child’s first school field trip, a Friday night high school football game, a livestock show hosted by the agriculture extension office or an increase in our property tax rate. At least those are the things that a relevant newspaper is all about whether your read it online or sit down with a morning cup of coffee and enjoy the traditional printed edition the way it was meant to be.

Newspapers — viable, strong, growing, thriving newspapers — are all about the communities they serve.

Sure, in the interest of transparency, some newspapers have struggled in recent years.

Many more are growing.

So what’s the difference between the newspapers on a downward spiral and those that are adding days of publication, adding staff and printing more sections and pages than ever before?

Really, it is not all that complicated.

In fact, it is rather basic.

The difference is community.

Newspapers, like any business or individual, will always struggle when they stop doing the things they do well.

In a quest to be more modern, to be more business savvy, or to use more silicon, we cannot lose sight of the single most important characteristic and historically important aspect of a quality newspaper — you, our readers.

We hold public officials accountable, advocate for openness in government and champion the cause of ordinary citizens because we are committed to the neighborhoods, cities, county and coverage area we serve.

Watered-down editorial pages, articles that read like a public relations campaign for government and page after page of wire service content will never resonate in the same way as celebrating our own community and standing up for its citizens.

Newspapers hold public officials accountable because it makes the place we call home a better place to live and because it is the right thing to do.

Newspapers do not make the news.

They report it — all of it.

Of course, a newspaper wants to celebrate its community.

We share the great human interest stories, provide a slice of life in the county, highlight worthwhile causes, focus on interesting people and most especially on our young people with every edition.

With intelligent, thoughtful, compelling commentary, coupled with clearly written, straightforward news reporting, we work every day to tell the truth and in that way we remain a vital and positive part of the community.

The newspaper belongs to the community.

That is why we work every day to give citizens a voice, to empower them and tell their stories.

That is why we hold government accountable, because at our very core we believe that government belongs to the governed and not to the governing.

That is why we embrace the newspaper’s role as the Fourth Estate.

According to historian Thomas Carlyle, Irish statesman and author Edmund Burke (1729-1797) said, “there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all,” (Heroes and Hero Worship in History, 1841).

Though in many places reporters have reduced themselves to simply being a mouthpiece for local government, reporting what officials want them to report and hiding what they don’t, a community and a democracy are best served when the newspaper provides a forum for checks and balances as the Fourth Estate of government.

Great newspapers, relevant newspapers that are embraced by their communities and consequently profitable and growing newspapers have not forgotten that role and have not abandoned these values.

We are not the enemy of government. Rather, we are the champions of citizens — of our community.

We know if newspapers do not stand up for citizens and protect the rights of free speech and the rights of access to government, then no one will.

We work each day to build a culture and incubate an environment where those elected feel accountable to those who elected them.

Newspapers should be the most powerful advocate citizens have and should be their open forum for a redress of grievances.

Any newspaper that represents the interests of the governing, more than the interests of the governed, is not worth the paper it is printed on or the ink that fills its pages.

Newspapers — the good ones — still make a difference in the communities they serve.

Burke also said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

As newspaper reporters, editors and staff, we have the daily, or weekly, opportunity to do something — something that matters to our community and in all of our lives.

As long as people still read, still care about their quality of life, still love the place they call home and still pay taxes, newspapers that retain their role as the Fourth Estate and that celebrate the lives of ordinary people will remain relevant, will matter to the community and be a part of your every day life.

Tennessee Transparency Project Director Jim Zachary was one of six editorial writers across the nation to prepare editorial columns for newspapers throughout the United States to be published as part of National Newspaper Week. Zachary is an award-winning newspaper veteran who has championed government transparency. He is the editor of the Clayton News Daily and the Henry Daily Herald in metro Atlanta.