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Opinion | The press, and who's going to know?

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Covering city council and county commission meetings tends to be, let’s say, tedious at times.

With some exceptions — like when a developer is asking for a multitude of variances to increase the number of units they want to build — covering government meetings tends to be routine, quiet, and frankly, a snooze.

Attendance tends to be sparse. Today, most council and commission meetings are streamed, so you can sit in your home and check out what your elected representatives are up to. I will suggest however, that in normal times the number of people who actually watch online is less than the number who attend in person.

Hatcher Hurd who reported for Appen for so many years, always used to sit in the front row, week in and week out, notebook in hand, listening to every detail. For many meetings, he was part of an audience of less than five. But he always showed up.

Sitting in the front row, Hatcher became something different than just a body in a chair. He became a “check and a balance.” Council members always knew that he would check up on their decisions and would make sure that everything passed the smell test — the balance.

Because he had more institutional knowledge than most council members, there wasn’t much that slipped past him. He knew the rules. He knew the history. He knew who to call. He knew enough of the law to know when it was being manipulated. For all practical purposes, his function at those council meetings was akin to a referee at a football game. Everyone abides by the rules, or he calls it.

Over the past 30 years, we’ve had an Appen reporter at around 4,000 city council meetings by my estimate. And we’ve reported on every single one.

We’ve had to throw that yellow flag onto the field more than a few times. Recently we threw one on the City of Roswell for withholding information that, by law, belonged in the public domain. It ended up in court, and ultimately the information became available once again to the public.

Last year, we threw the yellow flag when the Forsyth County Commission approved an item in open session — a matter earlier discussed in executive session— that they provided no details for.

Nothing.

They subsequently reintroduced the item, providing more details before casting a second vote.

We also wrote an article last year on Forsyth County’s plan to finally make their agenda documents available to the public online in advance of meetings. We were told it was “in the works,” but now, over a year later, still no agenda packet available online.

Gwinnett County made their agenda packets available online more than 10 years ago. Fulton has had its agenda documents available online before meetings for years, as well. So has Cherokee County.

The public needs reasonable access to public business. If access to online agenda items were ever needed, it is now when everyone is sheltering in place or avoiding unnecessary crowds.

We’ll keep you posted on Forsyth County’s online agenda packet availability.

Meanwhile, we’re still awaiting word from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office over a request we made two months ago. It related to Forsyth County’s probe into a commissioner’s alleged circumvention of open records protocols. The county has yet to release the emails we requested.

City councils, county commissions, school boards, all public institutions make decisions that impact your lives. They spend your tax dollars as they see fit. They award contracts paid for with your money and they do this in compliance with established law. One primary reason they comply with the law is because there is a newspaper reporter sitting in the front row listening.

Years ago, after a city council meeting had ended, our reporter was getting ready to go home. It was late. Two council members were still in chambers having a conversation. One councilman said to the other, “Why don’t we just go ahead and approve that? Who is going to know?” In response, the other council member replied, pointing to our reporter a few feet away, “he will.”

If the day arrives when there is not a reporter sitting in that front row, it will be a game with no referee. How do you think that will go?

Support your local press. It’s the only one you’ve got.

Ray is the Publisher Emeritus for Appen Media and the Herald newspapers.

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