WHAT, ME WORRY? – KEEPING THE PUBLIC IN THE DARK

Keeping the public in the dark
By David Hedges, Publisher
Times Record – Roane County Reporter
As someone who’s been in the public information business for more than three decades, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend.

It’s becoming more common for government officials to deny the public what is public information.

It’s not just an issue that should concern those in the news gathering business. It ought to be of concern to every taxpayer and citizen. After all, it’s our information they are keeping from us.

We pay the salaries of those who would gladly keep us in the dark about what they are doing with our money. Whose interest are they protecting? It certainly isn’t ours.

It may be okay in places like Russia to tell the citizenry that what the government does is none of their business. It shouldn’t be acceptable in a democratic republic like ours.

Technology ought to make disseminating information to the public easier. But some officials use it as an excuse to make it harder.

Our court system in West Virginia has gone computerized. It makes perfect sense to use technology to manage the massive amount of documents in the courts.

Records are now scanned into the computer system. In magistrate court there is a computer terminal for the public to use to look up cases. It is hardly the most user-friendly system in the world.

While entire cases files are now in the system, the pubic can only access limited information. Why? Because the state Supreme Court says so is the standard answer, but not a very good one.

Except for juvenile and some domestic cases, which, for whatever reason, are deemed off-limits to the general public, a citizen ought to have access to every record, but it’s not that way.

In fact, there is no reason these public records can’t be accessed from your home or office. The system is already online. But the records are not available to the public.

It’s even worse in circuit court. In Roane County there is no public terminal. Records I used to check every week in search of news are no longer available.

I have always felt that if we publish the name of someone who has been arrested, we are obligated to give the final outcome of their case, whether they pled guilty or were found guilty, or they were found not guilty or the charges were dismissed. Each case has one of those outcomes, except when the defendant dies before their case is adjudicated. In those cases, we publish their obituary.

In Roane County the grand jury meets three times a year. After each session, there are usually five or six cases dismissed by the circuit judge. There are people who were arrested more than 12 months ago, but never indicted.

I have always made it a point to run those dismissals, in fairness to those who we had reported had been arrested, although I suspect some would just as soon their name was not published again.

The dismissal order was an administrative order, one of those that are no longer available because we don’t have a public terminal.

It’s amazing to me the public can be denied access to public records over such a trivial excuse.

There have been numerous stories circulating about a local law enforcement officer who is in line to become our sheriff in a month.

While some personnel matters may be confidential, we had trouble even getting conformation regarding whether he is still employed by the city police department.

Since when did it become a secret whether or not someone is employed by a public agency?

At an ever-increasing rate, the public is being shut out of information about the government we fund.

That should be cause for alarm for every one of us.