Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Falsely Shouting Fire
The Morning News staff seems to understand the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, but WEHCO newspaper writers are in a lather. A radio announcer contributed a guest column warning that personnel records including an investigation of former city employees must be made public, because "what could topple our democratic way of life is secret government." Really? Our way of life might perish from the earth if the media don't get to read the tawdry details of a personnel investigation involving two employees of the fire department? I doubt that.
Yet, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette says, "Whatever the facts, the people of Fayetteville are entitled to know them." Not necessarily. Do the people have a right to the dental insurance records of a firefighter, just because the person is a city employee and the city pays part of the premiums? What about the income tax records of the fire chief to see if he claimed the $5,000 car allowance as taxable income? No, some records are exempt from the FOIA, and to pretend otherwise, whether through ignorance or guile, cheapens the importance of the law and clouds public understanding by the readers.
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act is one of the best in the nation. The underlying premise is that "it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that the electors shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in making public policy." Open meetings and open records that deal with public policy are covered and should be vigorously pursued. Records that are related to private matters, even by public employees during work hours, are only covered by the FOIA "if there is a compelling public interest in their disclosure." Mere voyeurism or prurient curiosity does not get it, concluded both Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and City Human Resources Director Missy Leflar.
"People wonder sometimes why newspapers press for information when cities fire employees," says the Northwest Arkansas Times. People also might wonder why the newspaper didn't just ask Fire Chief Tony Johnson why he fired the two employees or why he resigned, instead of whining about not getting the dirt in raw files of unsworn testimony in an internal investigation and pretending that there is some big cover-up to resist providing any documents.
Although neither the Northwest Arkansas Times nor the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has bothered to report the facts, the City issued a press release to reporters, editors, and bloggers indicating that the following documents were released upon FOIA request without charge to the local media:
1. Personnel files of each terminated employee. (Per legal requirements, they were released in full to the employees who requested copies of their own files but were released in redacted form to other third party requestors, including two newspapers. Social security numbers and other private items were blacked out, whited out, or otherwise omitted).
2. Job performance records (including investigation records) were released to the terminated employees, to the extent the documents pertained to those individual employees and were not other employees' personnel or job performance records.
3. Employee e-mails were released to the press.
4. Knox Box records for all of 2008 and 2009 were released to the press, accompanied by an explanation of how to interpret the reports.
5. A list of person/buildings/business/entities in Fayetteville which have Knox Boxes that allow access by the Fayetteville Fire Department were released to the press.
6. A list of Fire Department employees who are authorized to access properties via Knox Boxes was released to the press.
7. The employment status of employees, as well as their start dates, end dates, and job titles were released to the press.
8. Copies of other requestors' FOI requests were released to the press.
9. A copy of the letter to the Attorney General's office was released to the press, accompanied by an explanation of when the Attorney General's office said a response could be expected.
10. A copy of the first Attorney General's resulting Opinion was released to the press within an hour of the City receiving it.
11. Civil Service rules were released to the press, accompanied by an explanation of where to locate the particular rule the reporter was interested in.
12. City policies were released to the press.
13. Information pertaining to a Civil Service appeal was released to the press.
14. A copy of the second Attorney General's resulting Opinion was released to the press within an hour of the City receiving it.
That doesn't look like a "smokescreen" to us. It looks like plenty of relevant documentation for a good reporter to write a story, assuming that the editors think the issue is important to anyone other than themselves and the town scolds.
Sorry that we can't provide links to any of the Northwest Arkansas Times or Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columns referenced above. WEHCO Media doesn't think the public has a right to know unless they buy a subscription.