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|Editors: Help Us Mark Sunshine Week by Sharing Your Access Stories, Editorials|
APME wants to mark Sunshine Week, March 16-22, by hearing about the obstacles in your way to gaining access to officials, records and meetings at all levels of government.
We’re asking you to send us your stories about roadblocks to access in your communities, and we will post them on our homepage and use them in a special issue of the APME Update. The AP may also use some of the material in its coverage of Sunshine Week.
We also would like to see any of your editorials that have promoted open government and the community's right to know. We will post those too.
We also plan to offer a forum to discuss issues related to open government.
New Haven Register: Many New Haven police departments withhold public info
The Tennessean: Don’t lower bar for DCS accountability (Feb. 24, 2014)
Lawmakers in the General Assembly have understandably responded over the past year with anger and frustration at practices within the state Department of Children’s Services that kept Tennesseans in the dark about the tragedy of hundreds of child deaths and near-deaths under the agency’s watch.
But with so much more work to do, now is not the time for lawmakers to reverse course.
DCS’ performance and practices appear to have shown some improvement — driven by a court ruling against the department and by the threat that lawmakers could make changes at the department. The hard-fought court decision in favor of a statewide media coalition, including The Tennessean, required that DCS begin to comply with state law ensuring access to public records on children who died or nearly died while DCS was in contact with them and their guardians.
Legislative hearings compelled Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry and his lieutenants to make the agency more transparent. Now, however, state Rep. John DeBerry Jr. has proposed a bill, with input from DCS, that would greatly lower the bar for accountability, just when it should be raised.
The main thrust of the bill requires DCS to release information immediately when a child subject to a DCS investigation dies. But then it takes a 180-degree turn. limiting disclosure of child deaths to just those DCS investigates for abuse or neglect, rather than all child deaths; and the bill says nothing about the release of information on near-deaths.
This bill is obviously intended to chip away at the right of the people of this state to know what is happening to the most vulnerable people in its care. It is easy to see how a child’s death or brush with death should be reported, even if investigators do not initially suspect foul play. Children are not under their own recognizance. What appears to be a death from natural causes or an accident — which all too often is the case with child abuse — will languish in secrecy, making our state’s child welfare system less safe and rewarding incompetence within the agency.
A hearing of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee is expected to address this bill at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. Lawmakers and the public need to know that passing this bill would set back child safety in Tennessee.
The Tennessean: Metro exploits rape case for own ends
Claims of media sensationalism are merely a cover for attempt to avoid accountability (Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014)
Metro government and the attorney for the alleged victim in a Vanderbilt University rape case are perpetuating a lie that local media are sensationalistic and trying to exploit that woman. This cover story is an injustice not only to the news organizations in Middle Tennessee but also to the alleged victim in this terrible sexual assault case. On Thursday, Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins agreed to a motion by attorney Ed Yarbrough to intervene in a lawsuit filed against Metro government by The Tennessean and a statewide coalition of newspapers and TV stations.
In this case, the media have not done that. In fact, The Tennessean knows the woman's name, because it was in the indictment that was filed in court, but has chosen not to publish it.
It was easy, however, for Metro's Legal Department first, and then attorney Yarbrough, to smear local media's reputation by playing on stereotypes that have no basis in fact.
Yarbrough sneered that The Tennessean "knows what sells papers." The truth is that this newspaper understands and reveres its position in this community, and it has no intention to besmirch that position by publishing the name of the alleged rape victim, or by publishing photos or video taken in the commission of the crime.
It is a fact that third-party records such as phone texts and university documents gathered during this criminal case have been inexplicably placed under seal, and a gag order has been imposed on the parties in the case and their attorneys. But access to such records is protected by Tennessee's Open Records Act.
Chancellor Perkins also granted a request by the state attorney general's office to intervene on behalf of Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson. Johnson asked the state to join in on the basis of protecting the defendants' right to a fair trial and the alleged victim's privacy. Yet, neither is at threat from these media organizations.
Last year, it was state Attorney General Bob Cooper who fought in court to keep secret the records of children who died or nearly died while in the charge of the Department of Children's Services. His effort failed, because the people of Tennessee demanded their right to know how the state was failing these children. Now, Metro is making its own attempt to avoid accountability, teaming with Cooper's office to skirt the open records law.
The implications should not be underestimated. The types of documents the media are pursuing are routinely filed by attorneys and district attorneys in this county and throughout Tennessee in a variety of cases. We cannot have trust in our public institutions without the ability to verify that trust.
In lying about the media's intent, Metro government, the district attorney and the state attorney general clearly hope to protect their own privacy, power and privilege. It's not about defendants' or victims' rights — it's about not having to answer to anyone.
The Tennessean: Sexual assault privacy bill: protecting victims or those in power? (Feb. 12, 2014)
State legislation backed by Metro Nashville, supposedly to protect the privacy of victims of sexual assault, has many implications for our state, but helping rape victims is not among them.
Senate Bill 2254 is first and foremost an attempt to intimidate news media organizations throughout Tennessee, as they pursue a lawsuit against Metro over its refusal to release records in the rape investigation involving former Vanderbilt University football players. The Tennessean is among the news organizations that filed the suit last week.
But the ramifications of this bill go far beyond a single, high-profile rape case, and it is this that is most worrisome.
As written, SB 2254 would inflict serious damage on the public's and the media's ability to access third-party records, not only in sexual assault cases, but across the legal spectrum. It also could be used to prevent defense attorneys from discussing evidence with their clients. Police and prosecutors could simply redact from documents any identifying information about an alleged victim. And the broadly worded bill would prohibit public officials from disclosing "any portion of a report, paper, picture, photograph, video, court file or other document which tends to identify such alleged victim."
These prohibitions violate Tennessee's open-records law, so Metro's legal department is attempting to rewrite the law to suit its own purposes.
We do not know the real reason that Metro has fought so vigorously since last fall to keep third-party records such as phone texts under seal in the Vanderbilt case. The stated reason is to prevent media organizations from sensationalizing and exploiting the young woman who authorities say was a victim of sexual assault.
The problem with that argument is that no media organization in Nashville or across Tennessee ever identifies victims of sex crimes without their express permission. Metro officials, unless they live under a rock, know this. It is not in the best interest of news organizations, who count themselves as responsible members of the community, to reveal rape victims to the public, and it certainly is not the objective of the lawsuit against Metro.
It is in the best interest of news media to report about crimes, criminal investigations and court cases to a public that needs to know what is happening in the community, and where.
The American justice system works because there are rights for the accused, the accuser and the community at large. A law allowing police and prosecutors to seal or redact records will inevitably lead to the abuse of such power.
There is one other party who will be harmed this legislation: the rape victim.
If records involving sexual assault can be kept secret, it adds to the stigma of being attacked, rendering it more difficult for victims to recover from the experience. And when secrecy is an option, it's only a matter of time before it will be used to protect the attacker, not the victim.
The Tennessean: 'On a very tight leash'
Children's Services angers lawmakers to whom agency owes its existence (Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014)
It's about time.
We've seen the Tennessee General Assembly get riled up over inexplicable things, from barely existent voter fraud to phantom U.N. plots, while ignoring the real problems that residents of our state grapple with every day.
But last week, lawmakers were confronted with results of a state comptroller's audit of the Department of Children's Services that they couldn't ignore.
By now, the findings are not news to most Tennesseans, as news media across the state have reported extensively over the past couple of years about DCS' handling of child-abuse investigations, its failure to report child deaths and its inadequate supervision of some juveniles on probation — all of which were reaffirmed in the audit.
On Monday, lawmakers felt the sting of being out of the loop. Some complained bitterly that DCS has not adequately reported to members of the General Assembly, as required by law, about the child deaths and other issues. They questioned DCS Commissioner Jim Henry and other agency officials and were dissatisfied with the answers.
The upshot is that DCS, which under normal circumstances would be reauthorized for four years, was given only three. And lawmakers demanded a follow-up audit of the department within six months.
Commissioner Henry, while responsible for the conduct and performance of DCS since last spring, when he took over after the resignation of Kate O'Day, can go only so far toward an accounting of what happened at DCS under O'Day or her predecessor. As Henry noted, "there were 70 people who lost their (DCS) jobs at that time." Henry said the agency has fulfilled its reporting obligations to the legislature during his tenure.
But Henry and his staff should understand that, thanks to those predecessors, he will have no leeway. The current Department of Children's Services has no choice but to hew to the letter, as well as the spirit, of every law that governs child welfare in this state.
State Sen. John Stevens warned that DCS must make improvements while "on a very tight leash." Rep. Sherry Jones, who perhaps alone among the legislators was a vocal critic of DCS during the terrible 21/2-year period when 200 children died under the agency's watch, said that even now, "Things aren't moving quickly enough for children."
She's right to be worried. For all of the good intent that may be in play at Children's Services, there needs to be an impartial, independent entity regularly monitoring its activities — more than an audit every six months. And lawmakers themselves bear some responsibility for that lack of oversight. They can and should require independent monitors. It will have to be paid for, and DCS needs to pay better salaries for its starting caseworkers if better performance is expected over the long term.
We believe that the taxpayers of this state will accept that fixing DCS should be a higher priority than some of the matters that Tennessee chooses to spend money on. That, coupled with a system of greater accountability, is what must happen if this state is ever to become a safe place that values its young people.
The Tennessean: Trust in justice system suffers in secrecy (Oct. 18, 2013)
The over-the-top restrictions on information in the case of four former Vanderbilt football players accused of rape could well undermine the pursuit of the truth by disregarding basic tenets of public trust in the criminal justice system.
At issue is not the anonymity of the victim of the rape that is alleged to have occurred June 23 in the campus dorm room of one of the suspects. Nashville news media, including this newspaper, do not identify victims of rape without their permission.
Nor is it the threat of evidence being compromised by exposure in the news media. Yet these specters are being held up as convenient excuses for a protective order in the Vanderbilt case that prevents any explanation of the case proceedings. That order and the closed-door discussions held so far exceed what is reasonable in light of the public's right to know.
For example, a closed-door meeting among Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins, prosecutor Tom Thurman and defense attorneys on Wednesday apparently included discussion of scheduling a trial date for two of the defendants, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, a matter appropriately done in open court.
The Davidson County attorney general's office has cited the protective order, which includes attorneys for all four defendants signing an agreement to keep video and photo evidence secret, as necessary to "the integrity of the case."
The case won't be simple. The DA's office is severing prosecution of Vandenburg and Batey from co-defendants Brandon Banks and Jaborian McKenzie, presumably to enhance their ability to testify against one another.
But the way this case is being handled, the balance between public concern about crime in its midst versus individual privacy has been compromised.
In September, at a sentencing hearing for another former player who helped cover up the incident, prosecutor Thurman read a text message sent by the player that described quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels as helping move the unconscious rape victim. Carta-Samuels has never been accused of anything in the case, and prosecutors later said the text was a misstatement, without explaining how that happened.
The lack of information since that hearing has been a disservice to Carta-Samuels and to others in the case.
All along the way, the questionable calls by the prosecutors have served to diminish the seriousness of this terrible crime, giving fuel to a few who are more worried about the school's football program than about the commission of a violent crime — even to the deplorable misperception by some that the act the players are accused of is not a crime.
Being forthright with the community about the case — for example, having a public hearing about restricting access to the evidence — would help ensure impartiality.
Our system of law is meant to protect the public and the individual, not one at the expense of the other.
Echo Press: Council gets it right (Feb. 28, 2014)
Thumbs Up: Alexandria City Council members should be commended for not bowing to pressure from the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) that was seeking support for a resolution that would ultimately remove public notices from newspapers. If passed by the Legislature, cities would be allowed to publish notices on their websites "instead of, or in addition to, in an official newspaper.” The Douglas County Board supported a similar resolution, pushed by the Association of Minnesota Counties, on a 3-2 vote last week. A few readers have given a "thumbs down” to that decision. One reader noted, "Not everyone is so computer literate that they will search the Web for this information.” At Monday’s council meeting, Mayor Sara Carlson pointed out that the city already has the ability to put public notices on its website in addition to the Echo Press and didn’t need this resolution. Council member Virgil Batesole noted that he’s heard from many constituents, including those without computer access, who want to continue to see the notices in the newspaper. Batesole said he would even support a measure that would ensure the notices remain in newspapers in order to inform the most amount of citizens. The council took no action on LMC’s request and moved on. The Legislature should do the same.
Echo Press: Public's right to know takes a step backward (Feb. 21, 2014)
Douglas County commissioners made a decision Tuesday that could ultimately topple a domino that crushes the public’s right to know exactly what their locally elected officials are doing.
It voted, 3-2, in favor of a resolution that supports legislation allowing counties to publish public notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers. Public notices include information the public is entitled to know about – minutes of meetings, upcoming public hearings, bid openings, budget summaries and other legally-required documents.
The commissioners who voted for the measure, which is being pushed hard by the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), tried to argue that the resolution merely gives them the option of putting public notices on their websites and that it doesn’t mean that they’d ever stop putting the information in newspapers.
That’s hogwash. The AMC-written resolution is clear: It supports legislation that "would allow counties to publish certain public notices on their websites instead of, or in addition to, in an official newspaper.”
The bit about "or in addition to” is window dressing – cleverly concocted phrasing by the AMC to dupe commissioners into thinking this would just give them more "options” without fully understanding what this resolution would really do: Give local governments sole responsibility and control over the dissemination of its notices on their own websites, without any involvement or oversight from a medium that’s independent of government. That’s a chilling thought.
It makes no sense to seek an "option” you already have. Right now, there is nothing stopping Douglas County from putting public notices on its own website. There is no law against it. No penalties for doing so.
Commissioners Jim Stratton and Charlie Meyer, the two commissioners who voted against the resolution, pointed out this flaw. "We’d be letting St. Paul make a decision on something that…who knows where it will go,” said Stratton. Meyer noted that it makes sense to put public notices in as many places as possible, including the newspaper.
Stratton further pointed out that not everyone has access to computers or would even know enough to search out public notice information on the county’s website. He said one local woman, who doesn’t have access to a computer, told him not to change where the public notices are being published. She said she knows right where she can find them, in the newspaper. She’s not alone.
Unfortunately, commissioners Bev Bales, Jerry Johnson and Dan Olson approved the resolution anyway.
Now the AMC can add Douglas County to its list of counties that it will tout before the Legislature as "firmly supporting” the resolution.
Legislators should not make this same mistake and everyday citizens, not just newspapers, should voice their objection to this wrong-headed resolution as well.
Public notices should be public and they should be noticeable. Cutting the newspaper out of this process does neither.
Lawsuit / Columbus City Schools
Board admits to illegal meetings (Feb. 21, 2014)
The board illegally closed a series of meetings last year to discuss the district's data scandal, in violation of the state Open Meetings Act. The Dispatch filed a lawsuit in support of the public's right to attend meetings of public bodies.
A settlement signed yesterday by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Julie M. Lynch restricts the board from using a broad claim of attorney-client privilege to keep the public out of meetings about the data scandal. Board members had claimed such a privilege when they met in private with Robert "Buzz" Trafford, a lawyer they hired to advise them on the data scandal in 2012.
"The Columbus Board of Education has taken another important step in moving the school district forward," board President Gary Baker said in a statement. "Settling this litigation and putting it behind us allows us to focus on our priorities."
The board has spent or authorized more than $300,000 so far to defend itself in the case, even as the district faces $50 million in cuts and has placed seven schools on the chopping block.
The board also agreed to pay The Dispatch's legal fees, totaling $170,000, but the newspaper waived them "for the benefit of the public and the community," according to the settlement document.
A signal that The Dispatch would win the case came in March, when Franklin County Common Pleas Magistrate Tim McCarthy issued a preliminary order telling the school board to stop such meetings.
McCarthy rejected the board's theory that attorney-client privilege, or the right to meet privately with your attorney to get legal advice, required the board to close the meeting.
The board's own general counsel, Larry Braverman, had warned the board in two memos that he did not believe that the board could legally close the meetings to discuss the data scandal because the topic didn't fit any of the open-meeting law's exceptions.
Trafford said that he couldn't say whether he advised holding the meetings in private because he is bound by attorney-client privilege. It was after the board hired Trafford, a managing partner with Porter Wright, that members cited attorney-client privilege to close seven meetings in 2012, over objections from The Dispatch. The newspaper sued, resulting in the settlement.
The Open Meetings Act requires that for boards to shut the public out, their discussions must fit into one of several exemptions to the law. The district claimed one that allows bodies to "consider matters required to be kept confidential by federal law, regulations, or other state statutes." It said the law in question was attorney-client privilege.
The newspaper's attorney, Marion H. Little Jr., argued that the school board's actions were inconsistent with Ohio case law, including two Ohio Court of Appeals decisions, and McCarthy agreed. Little is a partner with Zeiger, Tigges & Little of Columbus.
The court determined that "a meeting that violates this order would cause irreparable harm and prejudice to" the newspaper, and that the district's legal theory "is without support" because the Open Meetings Act specifically allows closed meetings with attorneys only to discuss "pending or imminent court action." The district never has argued that there was pending court action.
In the settlement, the court found that the school board couldn't rely on attorney-client privilege to discuss the data scandal, and that the exemption can't be invoked in the future.
The case was set to go to trial last week, with Braverman first on the stand. Then the district decided to halt proceedings and settle.
The district's attorney in the open-meeting case, Douglas Cole, previously had argued before McCarthy that confidentiality was required for the sake of good government, so that the board could get legal advice from Trafford. With the FBI investigating the data scandal, in addition to state officials, the legal ramifications for the school board were large, Cole said.
Former board member Hanifah Kambon testified in October 2012 that there were few limits on what was discussed during the closed sessions, and "we took advantage of that opportunity, yes."
Scandal consumed Ohio’s largest school district in 2013.
And while it began in 2012, when Bill Bush and Jennifer Smith Richards broke the news that some student data in Ohio’s largest school district was a fraud, it proved to be only the beginning.
Although Bush and Smith Richards had exposed the scandal, they continued to break news that explained the extent of it story by story, week by week. They offered insight into why it mattered, uncovered how it could have happened and tracked the massive fallout from the fraud that some Columbus City Schools administrators had committed.
In "Counting Kids Out,” an ongoing series of investigative reports, Bush and Smith Richards continued to expose corrupt practices in Columbus schools.
Over the year, they discovered that not only had attendance data been altered, but some also had changed kids’ grades without anyone — even the teachers who had awarded them — knowing about it. The reporters chronicled how the massive data manipulations in the district had strained the school board and fractured political relationships.
They explained what happened when the district stopped changing data: Its schools appeared to be worse.
The fallout in 2013, as state and federal investigations dragged on, was far-reaching. Some key players resigned or retired at the beginning of the year. The Columbus mayor and corporate community swooped in to try to fix the broken district. And a plan was hatched to pass a levy that would ultimately fail in part because the community was outraged at the scandal and the district’s muted reaction to it.
All the while, Bush and Smith Richards kept digging and kept telling the community the true story of a district that had been passing levies, winning kudos and touting modest improvement based on little more than a lie.
The Dispatch has battled to obtain public records and keep public meetings open as it worked to expose the systemic fraud that affected thousands of children.
Bush and Smith Richards have made dozens of public-records requests to obtain thousands of documents, spreadsheets and database files, which they used to crack the code of Columbus’ data fraud. To tell readers how the state auditor’s investigation (which their reporting prompted in 2012) was progressing, they read every subpoena sent to the district and combed through each response over the entire year.
A letter from The Columbus Dispatch