We’ve had a lot of rain this year and it has been raining as I’m
writing. This week, however, in the newspaper world, is about sunshine.
It’s Sunshine Week in Georgia which is about transparency in government
and open records.
Government entities run on taxpayer monies and therefore, the public (taxpayers) have a right to know exactly how their money is being spent and what those governmental bodies are doing. Ultimately, most everything those bodies do, concern the taxpayer, including ordinances, applying for grants and everything in-between.
Not all bodies are forthcoming when it comes to transparency. Some will give a little information but they aren’t too keen on giving the public every detail. On the other hand, there are some who are totally transparent. At the newspaper, we judge that on how much information we receive, how they respond to questions and requests for information and the quickness of their responses. The law governs how long they have to respond if you do an open records request. We don’t always do these because we prefer to try and work with each entity on a more personal basis. But sometimes it doesn’t happen unless we get tough.
It’s pretty good in Crawford County, but could be better. Roberta City Council has seen quite an improvement in that area under the new administration. We’d give them an A for transparency.
The Crawford County School Board also gets an A and has seen improvement as well. Crawford County Board of Commissioners would get a B-. They have gone down in this area in last few years. Used to be we received pretty much what we needed without asking and if we didn’t, we got it when asked for. We don’t get a package with the agenda like in the past and though we did request that more than once, we decided it was falling on deaf ears and you do get tired of asking.
The Peach County School Board has improved under the new administration and also gets an A, as does the Peach County Board of Commissioners. Peach County BOC always goes above and beyond and there has been a dramatic improvement at the school board. Thank you Dr. Brown.
Byron City Council also gets a B- and that is pretty much how it has been for a long time there. They do send us a package with the agenda and we love the ladies at city hall who give us what they are allowed to give. City Council, however, has too many committee meetings held away from the public eye and backroom deals. Too many things are discussed by the committees that only come up for a vote without much discussion at the meetings. That means the public doesn’t know the background behind decisions which can sometimes go a long way in convincing the public it is what’s in their best interest. Requests for information are not always answered in a timely manner. As I said earlier, we usually don’t send a formal open records request and if we did they would be in violation of the law sometimes concerning time it takes to respond. But we keep working on that area. The last committee meeting we attended, the reporter was questioned as to why they were there by one councilman. That should not even be a question that is asked. We are there to protect the public’s interest and let them know what is going on with their money. We have a right to be there and shouldn’t be berated when we are able to attend the committee meetings. They are usually held on days and times when we can’t attend. We operate on a tight budget and small staff so someone to attend is not always available either, but we do what we can.
Government is to be for the people and of the people and in order for it to be and stay that way, government must be out in front of the people with transparency. Transparency should not be something where you can pick and choose which items are transparent, as all should be, but that is not always the case. If it were, I don’t think we would hear so many people complain about the various entities. The law does allow them to hold closed sessions without the public, called executive sessions, on three areas — personnel, litigation and future land acquisition. Sometimes the boards push this though and discuss other items which should be discussed in public. They think we don’t know but ultimately, somehow it gets out and back to us.
Government transparency is a battle I’ve fought for as long as I’ve been in newspaper. I’m sure it will continue to be in the years ahead. But it is your right to know and that is why we pursue it so vigilantly and you should demand it as well.
Because newspapers fight for your right to know, some entities will try and punish them in various ways, like withholding advertising. That is just foolishness but what can we say.
Just as the public has a right to know about government entities, the public has a right to know when the newspaper makes a mistake. We should own up to it and here we do when made aware of it. Mistakes do happen. I am thankful that in over 40 years I have never made a mistake which costs the community money, as happened in a nearby community.
An E-SPLOST election had to be postponed because the legal organ in another county did not publish the required notices. Not only did the paper in question not run a news story about it, the notice of what happened was run on the legal page in small type. To me, that is not being responsible and while I do not like taking another newspaper to task, when they fail to do what’s right, we must because it can in the end, effect all newspapers.
If we want to hold the government accountable, we must be accountable as well and be forthcoming to the public about our mistakes. The national mainstream media mistakes have the most effect, although, we should not be compared with them as you are not really comparing apples to apples.
Accountability is a two-way street. I pray that here we never forget that fact. Let the sun shine and support your local newspaper.©2019
VICTORIA SIMMONS Is a columnist, author, motivational speaker, minister and publisher of The Georgia Post/Byron Buzz. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org