Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Defending Your Right to Know

A My Two Cents salute goes out to Door County Advocate reporter Samantha Hernandez today for standing up for the public's right to know what it's elected officials are doing.  Hernandez was given the "thrilling" assignment of covering Monday night's Gibraltar School Board meeting and placed a small recording device on the board table.  This is a common practice among journalists to ensure accuracy in quotations used in stories--and to allow the reporter to review all aspects of a discussion in writing an article.

The recorder on the table was not an issue for the first 15-minutes of the meeting.  But then attorney Mary Gerbig--who was hired by the Gibraltar School Board to advise it on open records matters--suggested that the Board have the recorder removed during the public comments section of the meeting.  Gerbig defended the recommendation saying it was "for purposes of open discussion".

To her credit, Hernandez defended her use of the recorder--pointing out that this was a public hearing.  But Gerbig insisted--issuing a chilling opinion from someone who is supposed to be an "expert" on open records:

"It's a meeting of the Board of Education, and that it's the board's meeting, not a public meeting, these are public comments that are taken by the board (in this) session and that because it is a meeting of the board, there's not been any previous permission to tape a board meeting,

"The board can make a decision down the road if the board would like to tape sessions and that may be something that you'd like to have the board consider, but this is a reporter, and at this point I'm just going to ask that she please remove that from the table."

A non-school board elected official in attendance took the attorney to task for her statement--accusing her of mis-interpreting the state's Open Meetings Laws--and defending Hernandez's right to record the meeting.  And the reporter did not remove the recorder from the table.

While this situation still resulted in the public--through the media--retaining access to the proceedings of their elected officials, it shows the constant battle that reporters have to wage to keep you informed.  I've got several awards on the walls of the Newsroom for exposing open meetings violations right here in Oshkosh (although the violators were never punished).  And the state Court of Appeals found that a Fond du Lac County judge was wrong in banning members of the media from his courtroom for evidentiary hearings--a practice that I had personally objected to on two occasions in separate cases.  Our own School Board here in Oshkosh has adopted a practice of holding a private public hearing before its regularly scheduled meetings (making sure not to have a quorum of members present) so that people wishing to address members "aren't intimidated by the presence of the media (and members can say things off the records as well).

It shouldn't matter if you are the State Legislature drafting the next two year budget--or the Gibraltar School Board accepting the sudden resignation of a popular principal (the issue the attorney didn't want recorded in open session), those elected by the people--and the "experts" they hire to advise them--should always be conducting as much business as possible in full view of the public and the press.

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