"I can't keep my hands out the cookie jar."
-- Gym Class Heroes
For some of us who do this for a living, it was somewhat ironic that the city of Albany held a well-attended session Wednesday to inform employees, elected officials and appointed committee members their requirements under newer and more stringent state Open Meetings and Open Records laws.
Ironic because, just in the past few days, I've witnessed:
n A Dougherty County commissioner push the president of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission to "reveal" the source of "bad information" to outsiders about the county's school system, leading to a discussion of how the media dispense such information;
n An Albany City Commissioner note in open session that media reports of disagreements among members of the commission give the community a bad impression of the board's actions;
n A local official whose job is to entice businesses to come to this region note that prospects who will work at a new business locating here saying they will look for homes in Lee County or another community close by because of "things they read about the school system in your newspaper."
And there was the soon-to-be ex-school board member who claimed in a meeting "y'all" (when pressed to define her use of the term, this soon-to-be ex-official said, "Y'all people who work at this white newspaper") "are out to get me."
As I considered these incidences, I pondered the often love-hate relationship elected and appointed officials have with the folks whose pen and paper, recorders and cameras intrude on their personal space while they're carrying out their various duties. It certainly can be daunting and sometimes intrusive -- depending on the media representative -- to have someone questioning your intent and then relaying answers you've given off the cuff to an audience of readers, viewers or bloggers just looking to tear apart your every word.
But, you know what? That's the nature of this beast that is the modern media. As a public official, you have accepted the fact that the things you say and do have, like it or not, become part of the public record.
The state of Georgia has determined that, in this age of new technology and public awareness, scrutiny of the works and words of public officials is not only acceptible, it is encouraged. The state has told officials they'll no longer be allowed to work deals behind closed doors and get away with it. If they try to do so, they'll pay a price.
As Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said Wednesday at the city's Open Records/Meetings gathering: "I don't know about any of you, but I can't afford the fines and I don't want to go to jail."
The days of reporters hanging out at local watering holes to pick up tips on the inner workings of government are over. And the wink-wink, buddy-buddy relationships among elected officials and newsgatherers are also pretty much a thing of the past, although some have taken to exchanging private electronic communications. The public demands ever more information, and it is the job of the media to gather and report as much of that information as possible.
Warts and all.
Complaints about "nothing but negative news" are never true, but they're common. The old "if it bleeds, it leads" cliche is still true, to a degree, but an honest assessment of any media oulet shows there are just as many "good news" stories as there are bad in any given publication or broadcast. The bad news may dominate coverage, but it has to do with more than curiosity or a voyeur's interest in the seedy.
Sadly, when it comes to local media coverage, there's just a whole heck of a lot of bad news to report.
Certainly there are officials who would prefer to have none of their actions -- good or bad -- reported on, but that's just not reality. For those officials, I offer a couple of thoughts.
If you went into this process thinking you'd be allowed to operate freely in your own comfortable time and space continuum, you were simply fooling yourself. If you can't take the scrutiny, don't run for office.
And if you're one of those who resents nosy reporters telling the public about your involvement in activity not in your jurisdiction's best interest or even of a potentially criminal nature ... well, there's a simple answer. Don't do it, and no one will report on it.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.