VDT Open Government Symposium: in Macon?

Yay open government symposium! But why in Macon, why not in Valdosta, if it’s organized by the new VDT editor? Sure, Macon is the geographic center of the state, but it’s only about an hour from Atlanta, and one thing most people in Atlanta don’t understand is how big Georgia is, so asking them to drive four hours to Valdosta would be educational for them. And if the VDT is so interested in government transparency, why doesn’t it investigate the county’s lawsuit against local business Deep South Sanitation at the expense of the local taxpayers that benefits nobody but “exclusive franchise” ADS and its investors in New York City? Why is the VDT’s front page story that gave a platform for Spectra’s Andrea Grover no longer online, especially now that the Sabal Trail deadline she announced has been busted? Let’s see the VDT lead the way. Here’s a first test: Gretchen is going to Macon with the LAKE video camera. Will the VDT let her video?

Unsigned article, VDT, 11 October 2014, VDT leading way in open government,

The state’s first Open Government Symposium will be held in Macon Friday.

The free event kicks off a series of symposiums to be held around the state of Georgia in an effort to incubate a culture of government transparency, according to organizers.

Valdosta Daily Times Editor Jim Zachary, who is director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, and colleague Holly Manheimer, who is the director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, have organized the symposium and will provide the training while sharing their experiences in open government advocacy.

Valdosta State University Professor Dr. Patricia Miller, journalism advisor, will join Zachary and Manheimer, along with investigative reporter Oby Brown, of the Telegraph in Macon, for an open forum and roundtable discussion at the symposium.

The event, being held at the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University, is free and open to the public.

Organizers are encouraging elected officials, government attorneys, records custodians, journalists, community activists, students and anyone who has an interest in transparency and more accountable government to attend.

Good luck to them on that last.

A couple of quotes from the new VDT editor:

“We are creating a culture at the Valdosta Daily Times where we simply have the expectation that government is always open and transparent and each of our reporters will be well-versed in the state’s Open Meeting Act and Open Records Act,” the editor said.

OK, good. So:

  1. Where’s that former front-page pipeline article?
  2. Why did the VDT refuse to do a similar story on pipeline opponents after spending all that space on the pipeline company?

Back to the recent VDT story:

“Discussions will go beyond mere compliance with the letter of the law. These presentations will focus on both what the law requires and the intent of the legal requirements,” Zachary said. “When you think about it, nearly all issues that taxpayers, voters, ordinary citizens have with their government end up being about government transparency. While a lot of public servants talk about open government and being accessible, it is important they take the opportunity to step back and look at these issues through the eyes of the people they are elected to represent. We believe the symposium will give them the opportunity to do exactly that.”

Sounds great! How about asking the Lowndes County government why they stick to only the letter of the open records law when they return board packets only on paper in black and white when we know they have them in electronic format? How about asking the county why they don’t put the board packets online so citizens can know whether to show up for an item, and can see what their elected officials are talking about in their meetings? How about asking the same question about the Valdosta City Council, Hahira, Lake Park, Remerton, and Dasher, and all the local boards and authorities? How about ask why the county doesn’t even publish agendas for the Planning Commission?

Once upon a time, the VDT used to ask some such questions, at least when the VDT itself directly had difficulty getting information from local government bodies, such as

Why have both those just-referenced VDT stories changed their locations on the VDT’s website so you have to search again to find them?

Why has the Matthew Woody front page VDT story of 27 July 2014, Sabal Trail explains its position, disappeared entirely from the VDT’s website? That’s the one in which Andrea Grover said Sabal Trail would formally file at the end of October for a FERC permit. Which is very relevant now that opposition has busted that deadline and Ms. Grover told an Alabama paper “sometime later this year”.

I’m all for transparency and for the VDT helping make it happen. I don’t know how many times I’ve quoted the VDT editorial of 3 August 2011 (which has also changed links):

To The Times and its editorial board, it’s far worse for the community’s image to have public officials knowingly lie, illegally withhold public documents and try to bully those who are only after the truth.

When officials act like they are hiding something, they usually are. You can’t be accused of lying if you don’t lie. You won’t receive an open-records request if you answer questions honestly and in accordance with the law.

But all those examples were before somebody unnamed wrote for the VDT 29 July 2014, Zachary named The Valdosta Daily Times’ editor,

The creator and director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, Zachary recently joined forces with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, advocating for greater government transparency across the state while providing educational materials and seminars for citizens, journalists, action committees and elected officials.

“Our core belief is that government belongs to the governed and not to the governing and we believe all the people’s business should be conducted out in the open and not concealed behind closed doors or hidden in secret documents,” Zachary said. “In addition to our role as the Fourth Estate, a community newspaper must celebrate its community in very vibrant and positive ways, showcasing the quality of life while making sure readers have all the information they want and need to know.”

He added, “I look forward to being out in the community, visiting and speaking to civic organizations, making connections with city and county leaders and — most importantly — just getting to know the wonderful men, women and young people that call Valdosta and Lowndes County home.”

Well, that all sounds good. Although hobnobbing with just the usual suspects sounds more like a way to get absorbed into the old boy system than to bring it more transparency. In any case, let’s see some action.

Since Zachary was hired, we’ve seen one previous editorial “updated”, a front page story vanish, and URLs for a bunch of others change. And we’ve seen these new editorials:

Fine thoughts! Let’s see the VDT do something about them.