Who represents the public’s interests?

One of the great divides between journalists and public officials is over access to public information. Stated simplistically, journalists want more access; public officials want less.

Journalists represent the public when they attend meetings and seek information. They do that, not because it’s fun, but so they can pass the information onto readers and viewers. Obviously, voters put elected officials into office to represent their interests.

Who’s right? Let’s look and you decide. Courtesy of the N.C. Press Association, here are a few of the recent skirmishes between the press and elected officials.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: When the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board agrees to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a lawsuit, it does so in closed session.

From the News & Record: Greensboro City Council voted to NOT notify the public when small groups of council members meet with city staff members to discuss policy.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times: The paper sues the Henderson County sheriff, the board of commissioners and the county’s insurance carrier in an effort to force them to release details of a settlement involving the sheriff and a female employee.

From the Lincoln Times-News: The Lincolnton City Council met privately and decided to threaten to sue a local website for libel.

From the Brunswick Beacon:  The chairman of the Board of Social Services may be removed from his chairmanship for repeatedly violating the state’s open meetings law.

From the Alamance News: Burlington City Council met behind closed doors to order up a new city incentives policy.

Don’t get me wrong; some of the actions above are allowed under state law. That doesn’t mean, though, that they represent the best interests of the public. When people can’t see what’s going on they lose trust in government, and trust is a precious commodity these days.

The publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times said it best in the story about its lawsuit.

“This isn’t the county’s money or the sheriff’s money,” Randy Hammer said. “We are going to court because this is money that belongs to people who live, work and pay taxes in Henderson County. It’s their money. And they have a right to know how it’s being spent, especially if the county is having to pay extra money because the sheriff mismanaged his responsibilities as a public servant.”