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Outback Observations: Confidentiality and Contradictions

June 18, 2014 by

Working in the media affords certain privileges where information is concerned, though these privileges ultimately do come with paradoxical regulations.

Under state law regulating public meetings, governing bodies are allowed to conduct executive sessions, closed to the general public, which are usually reserved for the discussion of sensitive topics.  News media is generally allowed to attend these sessions with two exceptions: discussions of labor negotiations and those related to student disciplinary actions.

The paradox, of course, lies in the fact that members of the media may attend these closed sessions but may not report on the discussions therein.  Those are the rules, and I’m proud to say that I’ve diligently followed them to a ‘tee’ over the last nine years, as I have no desire to face the legal ramifications that would follow in the event of leaking such privileged information.

Of course, another form of contradiction exists through merely being employed in the media, and that lies with the information that we ARE able to disseminate to the public each week.

In the case of high-profile cases involving, say, public employees from one agency or another, when the juicy details of a given case don’t make the pages of the Examiner, the assumption is that we, as a publication, have consciously elected to not publish that information.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s all kinds of discussions and negotiations that take place when it comes to the discipline, including up to the termination, of a public employee or official.  Often times, the process has the additional complexity of labor union negotiations, through which additional stipulations for what details will and will not be released upon the conclusion of the decision-making process.

These are all things that we, as an extremely small operation, have no control, and is why extremely limited information makes the pages of the Examiner; and believe me when I say it’s just as frustrating for us as it is for you, the readers.

And now for another contradiction.  I find absolutely no pleasure in having to follow up on things of great controversy, such as a public official or employee under investigation for one form of misconduct or another.

At the same time, the public has a right to know why things go bad in the realm of those employed at the taxpayers’ expense.  I place these individuals on a higher level of accountability than those working in the private sector because their livelihood is funded by those that they serve.

So it’s for this reason that I harbor a certain frustration when things go bad, such as the conduct-related termination of an employee for some egregious breech of public trust.  At the end of the day, very little information is divulged on the specifics related to what specifically occurred and I’m sure much of it pertains to the overly litigious nature of our modern society.

The public deserves to have at least general details (as in basic facts, that is) accounted for in the public record, and, in the name of additional contradiction, the rumor mill is often abuzz with chatter related to the case; the least we should be able to do is confirm whether these rumors are true or false.

In the interest of full disclosure, the door swings both ways: I would support exploration of vindication of those facing false allegations every bit as those who have been proven guilty of misconduct.

I understand small town politics are an undoubtedly different beast from larger metropolitan cities just on the basis of the lack of anonymity in a town of 2,500 or smaller and a city of 150,000 or more.  Further complicating the issue is the fact that personnel-related matters are protected under confidentiality laws.

But what carries more weight, the embarrassment/shame of an individual or the trust of the collective community?  It seems to me the negative reinforcement of being publicly called out for making poor choices would help to ensure others might not undertake the same actions in the future.

It just seems that the protection of a guilty party’s reputation through legal agreements as part of the disciplinary negotiations runs against the grain of what public service is truly all about in the most fundamental sense.  Additionally, I can see how this practice would foster distrust and skepticism on behalf of the public at large.

The irony lies in the fact that, through means other than the official local media, the public is gaining information (in varying degrees of accuracy, I’m sure) through the gossip chain; the least we, as a news publication, should be entitled to is the ability to enter the news into the public record, accurately and officially.

— Ryan Bonham

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