Do you make New Year’s resolutions? I usually do. Sometimes they are elaborate, with different resolutions for different areas of my life – work, home, fitness. They often fail by February. Last year, though, I made just two. And lo and behold, I kept them both. If you will permit me, I’m going to suggest one or two new year’s resolutions for some key areas of your newspaper.
For the Newsroom. Over the years, we have seen that you can learn a lot from going back and reviewing minutes of closed meetings and looking at public records that once were secret and now are not. Put a reminder on the calendar to go back every quarter and request access to minutes of closed sessions. You may discover that the session never should have been closed, it may give you added perspective on something important that took place, or the clerk may have included interesting information. Remember, too, that the attorney-client privilege (which only shields communications from the public attorney to the public client, not vice versa) has a three-year horizon. After that, the records become public. So if you cover an institution over time, it’s worthwhile to periodically request access to records as they become public.
Put another note on your calendar to once a year reiterate your desire to be notified of special meetings of any public body, committee or subcommittee that you cover. The Open Meetings Law permits a public body to renew that request, in writing, annually.
The Ad Department. North Carolina’s public notice statute says that you must file your public notice ad rates with the clerk of court. If you don’t update those rate cards annually, you run the risk that you won’t get your current rate for public notice advertisements.
Human Resources. It seems that the world is changing at warp speed, and the impact on technology on personnel policies is significant. If your HR professionals have time to take on everything at once, that is great, but most people find that too daunting. Whether it is the need to revisit your newspaper’s social media policies or develop a “bring your device to work” policy, put a note on the calendar to tackle one policy per quarter. I have written columns in the past about these issues and will refresh that advice over the course of 2017.
For the Publisher. If the calls I get on the Hotline are any indication, I would be willing to bet a tidy sum that some time during 2017 your paper will be shut out of a meeting or denied a record or banned from a courtroom. When there are dozens of needs fighting for your attention and funds, that might seem like mission impossible, but public officials (including judges) are becoming increasingly brazen in their disregard for the First Amendment and open government laws. I think that is happening, in part, because they think the odds are low that they will be challenged. And they may be right. I urge you to make a commitment now that you will take on at least one open government fight this year. Remind reporters that whenever a public official denies access, the response should be, “What statute makes that confidential?” Call the Hotline (919/833-3833) when you get an answer to that question that doesn’t sound right. If the public official or public agency is breaking the law, continue questioning and requesting. Write about it. If need be, seriously consider filing a lawsuit. Remember that our public records and open meetings laws contain provisions that permit the court to award attorney fees to a requester who sues and prevails. You might be able to take on secretive public officials, even if it’s not in your budget right now.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that big things are accomplished one small step at a time. So if everyone at your paper made just one resolution for 2017 – and kept it – think about what an impact that could have on your newspaper overall. And feel free to ask me in March or October whether I’ve kept mine.