EDITORIAL: Don’t stonewall the press

WE’VE GOT A LOT OF NERVE. News reporters show up uninvited at all sorts of meetings and events, taking notes and describing just some of what they observe. Then editors add or delete stuff before the news gets out to the public. It’s institutional nosiness. Who gives us the right to make that a career? Bunch of professional busybodies, if you ask me.

If you think news gathering organizations like newspapers are nosy, consider the forces that have turned this industry on its head. Today, many millions of smart phone users capture images and sound of what’s happening in front of them and then stream or post or tweet what they see to the rest of the world from the palms of their hands. It’s kind of a gamble, for sure, but somebody out there might want to watch your feed, even if it lacks a cute cat. Regular people provide dramatic news all the time.

You never know when your image will go viral on the newsfeed of a complete stranger. To some people it doesn’t matter. Others might like a little more privacy. But since they’re not likely to get it, it’s worth remembering that there are differences between anonymous bloggers and local news organizations like newspapers. With newspapers and other local media, both the subjects of the news and news consumers know who’s responsible for reporting it.

Strangely enough this issue of privacy and the news came up recently in Germantown, where Germantown Hose Company No. 1 recently attracted some attention over the vote for a chief. The town fire district Board of Fire Commissioners, without explanation, voted in January to elect its fire chief for one month at a time. That’s unusual and The Columbia Paper reported it in a front page story.

We had planned to follow up on the situation a week later, but when our reporter called in advance of a meeting of the fire company, she was told the newspaper would not be permitted to attend. This is an organization that functions with the use of public funds–tax money. The president of the fire company was not swayed by the source of funding. He describe the fire company as “a club” that was not subject to the state Open Meetings Law.

He was wrong. The state Committee on Open Government, an arm of the state Department of State, cited a court decision and the language of the law, both of which reveal that barring the newspaper from the meeting did not comply with the state Open Meetings Law.

Let’s everybody take a deep breath here. We’re talking about volunteer firefighters. They save lives and property all the time and don’t get paid for what they do. The few benefits they can receive for their service do not compensate them for the hours they spend in training and the grave dangers they willingly face to protect the public. No one accuses Germantown fire officials of a crime.

The frustrating aspect of this story is that some leaders of the Germantown firefighters appear unable to shake off the old notion that the company is a club rather than an essential public service staffed by citizen volunteers. Surely the members of the fire company should be able to socialize and organize in ways that best support them in the performance of their duties. But taxpayers fund equipment and facilities used by the company and, in response, the company must adhere to the laws that allow the public, including the press, to observe the company’s decision making process. You’d think that as taxpayers themselves, Germantown firefighters would demand transparency.

The state’s Open Meetings and Freedom of Information (FOIL) laws have exceptions when public scrutiny is not allowed, especially where private information about individuals is involved. And all residents of the state have access to experts at the Committee on Open Government who offer informed opinions about the application of those laws when disputes arise. These laws are intended to be used by the public to answer questions about how government works at all levels. There’s free, helpful, clear information about the laws at http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog.

There’s a principle at issue here. Secrecy corrodes democracy. The people have a right to know what government does in our name and with our money. Not even volunteer fire companies, the most honored and essential of local government services, can override that right by clinging to old notions and stonewalling the press.



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