Don’t let the facts get in the way–Publisher’s Corner

Publisher’s Corner–by Richard Lamb

The county board of commissioners again voted to keep the official minutes of their meetings out of your local newspaper. It is hard for me to understand the logic of that decision. That vote came at the board’s organizational meeting in January.

Is it really about the money? Do the commissioners have something to hide? I don’t really know.

Their decision bothers me on a number of levels. Of course my newspaper is missing revenue from a potential advertising customer, that is important to the newspaper’s bottom line. Let’s get that out there right away. To me, the $6,000 is a big deal. But in the scheme of things for the county, that amount of money is small potatoes, yet they treat it as a make-or-break item for its $5 million budget.

The larger thing is its decision is clearly a disservice to the public, which elected the board.  All but one commissioner, newcomer Lee Gapczynski, voted to keep the minutes out of the newspaper. Mr. Gapczynski, a wise businessman, gets it. Wayne Vermilya, a former commissioner, gets it, too. He spoke out at last week’s meeting encouraging the commissioners to not be so secretive and publish the minutes, as it had for so many years in the past.

THE CONTENTION that more people have access to the Internet than read the newspaper, which was made by one commissioner at last month’s meeting, is worth exploring. It is certain that most homes have access to the Internet and most people with smart phones access the Internet daily.

But seriously, how many can find the minutes on the county Web site, even if you wanted to? Raise your hand.

And, the minutes are always available at the county clerk’s office, they say. There is not a line forming to get copies on the second floor of the courthouse. It is not very convenient to follow the doings of the commissioners this way.

According to the county’s own Webmaster, the commissioners’ link on the county’s page only had 148 visits from Dec. 1, 2013 to Jan. 10, 2014—just more than 3.5 per day or 25 per week.

Those numbers pale to the visitors to popular Web sites, like PIAdvance.com, for example, that averaged more than 2,550 visits per week in the last half of 2014. That increased to more than 32,000 for the month of January alone. 

More importantly, local newspaper has a strong circulation of 4,000 and a readership that covers the county. With only 16 or 20 pages in the Advance each week, everything is pretty much out in the open to read.

Next, it was said that publishing the minutes, which are three or four weeks old, makes it old news. That is missing the point.

First of all, the commissioners meet only twice a month. The minutes should not be presented anywhere until approved—two weeks after the meeting.

Secondly, the minutes are not news. The minutes are a permanent record of the doings of the most important commission in the county. Once published in the newspaper, the minutes cannot be changed. That’s why it is called a permanent record. Can that be said of anything “published” on the Internet?

Having a permanent record, published in an independent—not government—publication is a great double check on our local government officials.

ONE OF THE constant battles faced by newspapers is the fight to keep government open and accountable. For years, government bodies stayed accountable to the light of public scrutiny by publishing its proceedings in a well-circulated newspaper in its county. That worked for many years as the public had the opportunity to see the minutes in an easy-to-find version.

Some publicly elected boards have chosen to hide accountability by putting minutes of its meetings on hard-to-find Web sites. That does not serve the public very well. It saves the governmental body some money in the short term, but does it really serve the public very well?

This should not even have been a debate.

(Richard Lamb is Editor and Publisher of Presque Isle Newspapers, Inc., a position he has held since 1989. He and his wife are owners of Presque Isle Newspapers, which publishes the Presque Isle County Advance, the Onaway Outlook and PIAdvance.com)