You can't go off record during public meeting

Posted 2/7/19

Let's clean out the notebook ... • Well, let's first have a lesson in civics. I've seen  some meetings of late, here and elsewhere, where elected officials have asked in the middle of …

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You can't go off record during public meeting


Let's clean out the notebook ... 

• Well, let's first have a lesson in civics. I've seen  some meetings of late, here and elsewhere, where elected officials have asked in the middle of meetings to have items just discussed be off the record. 

And that was wrong. Oh, how that was wrong.  Recently, when someone asked me to do that, I didn't say a word. I just put it in the paper anyway. 

Now, that may seem cruel to some of you. I can understand. But the truth of the matter is that elected officials, as much as anyone, should understand this: The reporters are not there at the beck and whim of your publicity department, willing to cut and snip on the spot in the meeting when the first whiff of trouble shows up, even before the discussion is through. 

Reporters are not there to clean up the mistakes of public officials at open, public meetings. It is one of the biggest misconceptions I've seen in nearly 38 years of journalism. They do this in meeting after meeting, decade after decade. 

Sometimes, I've decided on the spot not to publish something on my own, as it is not important to the story, or I can see problems with it. A few times I have given in, just to have peace when I didn't feel like fighting. Those were the days I was wrong. 

But the fact any public official would come into a public meeting and willingly turn to the reporter and put him or her on the spot publicly, saying that is off the record - when it darn well IS on the record, in an open government meeting paid for by taxpayers and required to be accountable to the public - is not a good moment for a reporter. It should not be considered a given by the public official, and, really, should not be considered at all, in any way permissible, by the official. What is said is said, what is presented is presented. 

The biggest concern over the years has usually been considered for security. I am becoming colder to that excuse. They state usually something is lacking, and if we put that in the paper, the criminals will run over us. Ohhhhhhhh, the nightmare. 

Well, I just reported about the Walker County Jail lacking working locks on the individual cells. It's like Otis Campbell at the Mayberry Courthouse, only Aunt Bee doesn't bring the dinner because there is a couple of hundred people or so to feed. We seemed to have survived that shock. 

And the reason we would go ahead, in my mind, is that if there is a major problem in security, we need to make that accountable instead of hiding it under a bush, trusting that someone will take care of the matter. If there is a problem, and the public understands it, it can be resolved faster, with better input and understanding, and with the adequate pressure to resolve it as the public is holding the matter accountable. 

• Reports came back to me Tuesday night about the Empire Fire Department meeting. As they discussed rebuilding the department from scratch, the meeting broke apart into a shouting match. I'm told a Walker County deputy was having to escort people out. Mind you, these are the people we are supposed to trust with our own emergencies. It is a shame that they can't even sort things out in a civil manner. Unless there is an attitude adjustment, I imagine a lot of people might as well get used to much higher house insurance, because a bunch of adults can't help but act like a bunch of children. 

• I have been bombarded with questions about the Jasper fireman who said inappropriate things to the school children at Groundhog Job Shadow Day. People have wanted to know who was the fireman, the children, and the pastor parent. I don't know. I really don't. It was clear the mayor didn't want to tell everything, including the names. 

Truthfully, the fireman should have known better not to say such things in front of children; a letter in the file is certainly in order, although if it is the first blot in 20 years, I don't know that it would rise above that, although we don't know all the details. We really don't know what the pastor/father said, so we may need to give him some slack, too, but if the fireman is willing to ask forgiveness - and maybe take some sensitivity training - I would think we could move on from there. I think we've all said and done some dumb things at times that can be end with forgiveness; hopefully, depending on circumstances, that is all that is needed with this situation. 

• The news out of the brief Walker County Civil Service Board Tuesday night was that Probate Judge Lee Tucker had terminated Angela Howard as chief probate clerk, as a letter came Jan. 22 saying she would no longer serve in that position. Howard filed grievance on Jan. 31 citing termination without cause. The board had already voted it would hold off action while waiting for an attorney general's opinion, which is expected in a matter of days. I was told if it is determined the probate judge can terminate someone in the position at his pleasure, then no more action is needed by the board. If the probate judge cannot do that, then the board must vote. Jerome Davis is the newly appointed chief clerk. The next board meeting is March 5.  

• You may have heard a citizens group in Marion County has sued Bevill State Community College President Kim Ennis and Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker in an open records case as they are seeking documents related to one-time proposed efforts to close technical programs at the Hamilton Campus. Circuit Court Judge Lee Carter in Hamilton agreed to a defense motion to move the hearings. Jasper and Montgomery were considered, and in the end the mutual decision was made to move it to Montgomery. 

• I was watching a video of the Marion County Commission in a called public meeting this week, where they were discussing at length the need to construct a new county jail (a project that is long overdue). Details are not nailed down at all, as it was all preliminary discussions, but they were interviewing officials, such as a possible local architect, that they could use. They are not decided on a location at all. But I am glad they are discussing it. It is an expensive proposition, but one they really must do to keep control over matters. 

• James Phillips observed an interesting Kiwanis Club of Jasper speech by Walker County Coroner Joey Vick the other day. He said Vick noted the difficulty of the fact that whenever he is out of the county, the deputy coroners have to cover a death - but they are not paid a dime. That doesn't seem quite fair, does it? You can't chain the coroner to say four solid years in the county without crossing the county line. 

• You will recall I said CBS must be overjoyed that the Los Angeles and New England markets would be in the Super Bowl. The numbers from the Slumber Bowl are in, and it was the worst ratings in 10 years. I should know as I turned it off after 30 minutes. The commercials were not much better. I learned not to drink Bud Light or else a dragon will fry me. (If the ad agency is burned to a crisp, too, for being so stupid as to represent total defeat for the sponsored product, all I can say is, "Dilly dilly!")