How local journalists fight government secrecy — every day

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Please meet Trevis Mayfield, Larry Lough and David Giuliani.

These men aren’t — and wouldn’t claim to be — household names. They’re not powerful First Amendment lawyers. They haven’t been parties in precedent-shattering U.S. Supreme Court cases. They’re not high-profile constitutional scholars.

And yet, what they’re doing to advance and protect the freedom of the press is as important as any Supreme Court precedent. They’re journalists, manning the front lines in battles against government secrecy and fighting the daily fight to provide their readers the most thorough and accurate information possible.

Mayfield, Lough and Giuliani, of course, aren’t alone. Every day, publishers, editors and reporters across the country push back veils of secrecy, ask hard questions and refuse to take “no” for an answer. Mayfield, Lough and Giuliani wouldn’t claim to be the nation’s best journalists, but they exemplify the best journalism has to offer.

Admittedly, I’m biased. Mayfield is a good friend and the publisher of Sauk Valley Media, one of my favorite clients. SVM publishes the Dixon Telegraph and the Sterling Daily Gazette in rural northwest Illinois. Lough serves as the papers’ executive editor, and Giuliani aggressively covers several beats. My bias, however, doesn’t change the fact that these men have teamed to increase the accountability and enhance the openness of the area’s local government bodies.

In just the last three weeks, for example, SVM has obtained opinions from the Illinois attorney general that the Lee County Board violated Illinois’ open-meetings law and that the Rock Falls Township High School District board of education failed to comply with the state’s freedom of information act.

At first blush, of course, these issues hardly seem like blockbusters. What makes them significant, however, is that they arise every day in every corner of the country, threatening to deny important information to the public and challenging the news media to respond.

The issue with the Lee County Board arose when the board on April 19 voted on two items — to reduce its size from 28 members to 24 and to fill an animal-control vacancy — even though the items did not appear on the board’s agenda.

Giuliani, who covers the board, believed the actions violated the state’s Open Meetings Act and said so, ultimately complaining to the Illinois Attorney General about the alleged violation. The county maintained its actions were legal, arguing that the vote on the size reduction was sufficiently publicized because the issue was referenced in minutes of a board committee and that the vote on the animal-control position did not require notice because the person hired was a “minimal income employee.”

The attorney general disagreed.

“[T]he public body cannot take action or make any decision with regard to items or topics not on the agenda of the regular meeting,” Assistant Attorney General Amanda Lundeen wrote.  “[T]he Board is required to include in its meeting agendas public notice of any matter on which it intends to take final action, including the hiring of any employee which requires Board action.”

The issue with the school board arose in February, when a special-education teacher and wrestling coach accused of sending inappropriate text messages to a female student resigned from both positions near the end of a five-hour closed session. Shortly after the closed session ended, the board approved a resignation agreement negotiated during the closed meeting.

The board, however, refused to give Giuliani a copy of the agreement or related records, claiming it was permitted to keep the documents secret because they related to the adjudication of an employee disciplinary matter for which there had been no final outcome.

As permitted under a new Illinois law, SVM appealed the denial to the public access counselor in the attorney general’s office. (This new process works so well that media lawyers usually are not involved in the appeals, and I was not involved in this one.) Not surprisingly, the attorney general concluded that this exemption did not apply, as the employee’s resignation constituted a final outcome.

The district then asserted a second ground for keeping the documents confidential — that they would inappropriately disclose the student’s identity. Noting that SVM already had agreed that the district could and should redact the student’s name from the records, the attorney general also rejected this argument.

“[M]uch of the information in these documents relates solely to the district’s investigation and to [the teacher’s] reactions and reveals nothing about the student,” Assistant Attorney General Sarah Kaplan wrote.  “The remaining information is not highly personal, and disclosure would not be objectionable to a reasonable person.”

The only documents the district could withhold, Kaplan said, were preliminary drafts or recommendations in which opinions were expressed or actions formulated.

Predictably, the district latched onto this exemption and is refusing to release any documents until the Attorney General determines which few records, if any, can be withheld under it.

No matter which records finally are released, it’s clear that SVM will continue holding local officials to the standards the open-meetings and open-records laws require. Giuliani knows how the laws work and how to enforce them. Lough devotes many of his weekend columns to raising awareness about these issues and mentors Giuliani and SVM’s other young reporters. And Mayfield continually provides the support, through resources and the papers’ editorial pages, that Giuliani and Lough need to maintain their fight.

As a result of these efforts, readers throughout northwest Illinois indisputably are better informed. Armed with this information, they join citizens across the country who — thanks to journalists like Giuliani, Lough and Mayfield — can monitor and evaluate the local boards and councils that make the decisions that directly affect their daily lives.

The story, you see, isn’t that Giuliani, Lough and Mayfield are special or unique. It’s that they’re not, that countless journalists like them every day battle and sacrifice and endure the wrath of angry elected officials to bring us important local news.

What can we do in return? For starters, we can pay attention, get and stay engaged with local issues. We also can get more directly involved, attend a public meeting, maybe even express our opinion.

And, occasionally, we might even tell the journalists fighting the daily fight that we appreciate their efforts.

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