PAINTER: Taxpayers have right to know about public officials

Public employees are fair game.
Mar 5, 2014

By this, I mean that the media – newspapers, radio and TV stations, and other news outlets – have the right to report on the activities of public officials, even if it means delving into their private lives.

That may seem unfair to some, but that’s the price you pay when your salary comes from taxpayers’ dollars. It’s been that way for years.

Who are public officials? They could be a city manager, school superintendent or even a police chief.

Yes, the media has been much more diligent since Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal at the White House under President Richard Nixon. From then on, the media have kept a much closer eye on the doings of public officials.

There was a time when the media, especially newspapers, looked the other way when there were rumors of inappropriate behavior by prominent public officials. President Jack Kennedy’s escapades were seldom reported. Even famous sports figures were off-limits.

Sports reporters were befriended by Babe Ruth. They didn’t report his inappropriate behavior such as violating curfews.

Times have changed. Public officials have to be more careful now. Any wrongdoing is likely going to be reported.

The bottom line is that taxpayers have a right to know if a public official’s private life is interfering with his or her job performance. They also have a right to know why a public employee was discharged or resigned.

Media outlets can now file Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information on a public official’s job performance.

But public entities aren’t always willing to disclose why a public worker was fired or explain the reasons he or she resigned. Taxpayers should be allowed to know those details. It is their money, after all.

Yes, being a public official such as a city manager or school superintendent isn’t easy. Their jobs aren’t always secure. A city manager’s job tenure can be jeopardized quickly if there are changes on the city council. We’ve seen that happen in Grand Haven as several city managers were ousted from their jobs.

They also have to deal with the media, which sometimes questions their decisions.

I recently heard Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis explain in a WGHN Radio interview one of the reasons why he chose a career in public government. McGinnis said he always wanted to be involved with a community and its citizens. He said he enjoys interacting with the public, and he’s good at it.

Other public employees will tell you the same thing. They love helping a community grow and thrive.

But McGinnis, as well as others, knows that public service work can come with a price. They have to watch their steps. They are constantly being scrutinized for their decisions, which aren’t always popular.

The media won’t hesitate to report any wrongdoings by public officials. It’s their job.

When I was a reporter in Texas, I often butted heads with the city manager. I once wrote a story of how he circumvented the bidding process to award a job to a contractor. He had to rescind the contract and put the project up for bid after my story ran. I felt I was reporting in the interest of the taxpayers, trying to save them some money.

Newspapers play an important role in a community. You’re probably not always going to like what they write. You might even think they go too far sometimes by delving into private lives.

But when their private lives affect their job performance, then you should want to know about it. As a taxpayer, you should want to know how your public officials are spending your money.

I believe that newspapers are pretty good watchdogs.

— By Len Painter, editor emeritus

 

Comments

Vast Right Wing...

"Yes, the media has been much more diligent since Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal at the White House under President Richard Nixon. From then on, the media have kept a much closer eye on the doings of public officials."

The mainstream media only investigates those it despises. I have yet to see the mainstream media fully investigate Barrack Hussain Obama, we don't know how and under what name he attended Occidental University; we do not know how and under what name/passport he visited Pakistan when US citizens were not allowed to visit under US law; we don't know how and under what name he attended Harvard University; etc. There has been no major cry from the mainstream media about the many scandals, just report on Miley Cyrus or Hunny BoBo to hide the President's scandals.

We didn't hear the mighty Grand Haven Fishwrap (Tribune) question him, until he wanted to put government control on reporting, and then I guess the mighty Grand Haven Fishwrap was afraid of his over-reach, like their demi-god would care what this small town rag would report.

theQuin

Within reason - and the strictures of FOIA - I agree. So, let's see Christine Burn's records - especially in regard to her Red Flannel Festival escapades.
Also, even FOIA does not allow the media to breach a legal confidentiality agreement. Only a court of law can do that. Would this paper's editor like to pay about $20,000 to take Chief Deyoung's agreement with the village to court?

Admin14

Ditto. And lets see Officer Theune's personnel file while we are at it too. The Tribune reports on the victim of a serious accident suing the village, but doesn't even get a copy of the crash report? Come on, it's simple, just get it and find out the truth, and get his personnel file too while you are at and find out what type of discipline he got for totaling out a village police car and now probably having to pay thousands for the injuries of the victim that he so carelessly hit.

cvocvo

@theQuin, the "media" is not under a confidentiality agreement . . . so they could not breach it. The media was not a party to that agreement and they are not subject to it.

I think what you were trying to say is that the media can not compel another party to breach a legal confidentiality agreement of which the other parties are bound. I just wanted to get clarification about what you are saying here.

Let's have more transparency . . . on all sides.

16damons

Every individual should be fair game... or no one fair game. I often see people convicted by public opinion via the media, only later for the same public opinion to realize they were swayed by the same media they somehow came to trust. Whether it be a neighbor, city council member, police officer or judge, all should be held to the same standard.

In particular, I cannot understand how the public may gripe about a judges' opinion and criminal sentence of an individual, but in the end... whether pro or con on a judge's determination, all is generally left accepted as if the judge owns... or even adheres to a higher power the public does not understand. Now don't misunderstand my penchant for admonishing judges, I just have a problem with a judge having a bad day (no gourmet mustard on his/her sandwich) and aptitude has changed (how ever so slightly) and the judge (him/her) doesn't even see it within. We are talking about a person that is enabled to completely control a persons' life. I follow the decisions of local judges as I study cases with an unbiased opinion. Yet, I have found at times, I am simply amazed at how local judges can play with people's lives on whim. These judges are supposedly bound by written law and guidelines, but they basically do whatever they want and let a higher court rule on the decisions they make. No one... and I mean no one is right all the time. Most judges will admit this, but they have a way of dismissing themselves from the equation. When a person is allowed to regulate law and determine another persons future, they should be held to an utmost standard... and every once in a while (my opinion) be subject to psychological testing to affirm they are still capable of holding such a position. Maybe my post here is not so well written as I attempted to explain my thoughts, but what the heck… everyone is entitled to their opinion, even without spellcheck. I have been reading the Grand Haven Tribune for around 45 years now and I am pleased to see the latest investigative reporters not completely bowing to the local powers that be for a story.

Admin14

"Investigative reporters"? What a joke. Since when has the Tribune ever done a complete investigation? They stir the pot a little bit in order to sell papers and make big headlines. But a true investigation from start to finish? Come on, give me one example where the Tribune has ever followed up completely on any of their stories by doing a complete investigation? It's too bad that the era of the print media is dying and the Tribune will most likely cease to exist within a year or two. Otherwise it would behoove those with the cash to come into town and start a real investigative news reporting team that would put the Tribune out of business as fast as you can say "extra, extra, read all about it".

16damons

Well, ya got me. By "investigative reporters" I suppose I was more along the line of the "some" of the fledgling journalists at the Tribune appear as of late to seem give somewhat of an unbiased story and not simply follow what local government desires to be published. Back "in the day", it seemed the Tribune kissed "a**" to get whatever information the local government would supposedly give and it nearly always leaned in favor of the local powers. Yes, the Tribune needs to step up and not be servant to any entity for a story. The "FOIA" has come a long way... and hopefully Tribune staff will present the news with an unbiased opinion, follow it up... and allow the readers to garner their own opinions without attempted sway in either direction.

TooMuch

It's a slipperey slope isn't it? Painter believes that there shouldn't be any boundries on the reporting of the activities of public officiials and what goes on in their lives. It appears that it is okay to report on what "might be going on" in their lives as well and not to report when the Tribune finds out what they "insinuated was in fact wrong." Is Painter a public official as the Editor? He is not paid by the taxpayers but he has a duty to the public as the Editor to report accurate information. Where does the line get drawn? Should there be reports about his childrens troubles and thier activities with Ottawa County Court system. I think why not? It could slant his view. If he is going to use the power of the FOIA to delve into people's private lives, let's have a look see at his too. He seems to think it is okay to publish the bank account and driver's license number of the police chief; the Tribune didn't follow up on the firing of the Village Clerk, just the Village Chief. I assume they both were let go in the same manner with Agreements. Except it appears that the poor Chief had to put up with a heck of a lot more badgering from the Village Manager's continued escapades, micromanagment, digging up his divoce decree from the Court, just to name a few. Did she do that on her own or did the Village pay the Village atty to do that? Was Council behind that too? Insisting he take his child off the health plan {illegally}. Insist he write down his milage when he use the Villiage car for personal use (a new rule). I hope she is keeping good records as well on that new car the Village bought her when she came on board, Then she makes it sound like to the media, and they ate it up, that the Chief had a violation of some sort and had to resign. That never happened either. The Village is going with the OCSD is the news pursuing that story? Yeah, that's a person you want in charge. I've been reading about her on the internet re her prior days in "public service" and am not impressed. In fact, we in SL should be activily involved in every meeting to watch what is going on in the Village. The whole story is not being told here and won't be. Don't expect transparency because you won't get it from her or Council. Burns has a history of how she treats people according to the internet stories writen about her from the other counties and Village she has worked. I am less than impressed in the short time she has been here, mostly about the way she goes about things, her demeanor, how she treats people. If I worked for her I wouldn't trust her even if she were a him so don't think thats it. It is due to her actions thus far. And as for McGinniss, when I see him out and about Grand Haven, he usually has his headphones stuck in his ears. I think that is a clear indication "don't talk to me". But Mr. Painter thinks those two have pretty hard jobs, not like a police officer or someone like he or she who are our there putting thier lives on the line every single day.

Admin14

Yes, good post "Too Much".
Everyone knows that the Village is contracting with Ferrysburg and Sl for police services. Where is the "investigative" story on that? Finally, at some point, those officers who sit in the office half their shift will have to work in other areas of the county eventually and find out what real police work is all about.
As to Manager Burns, her rudeness and underhanded treatment of Village employees won't make her last long here, don't worry.

JVH1219

Toomuch. Before you waste your time writing out a huge paragraph why dont you do a little investigating for yourself. First you would have found that Len Painter is not the Editor of the Tribune and hasn't been for more than a year. Now that we have that figured out how about you find out who the new editor is and ask her/him why THEY put Mr Deyoungs bank and drivers liscence numbers out for everyone to see. And as far as a FOIA on Mr Painter's past or his childrens why? I sure wish my life was as clean as yours.

TooMuch

double post

Zegota

There must be a line that the liberal media cannot cross, there must be a line that prevents intrusion into personal life challenges that has absolutely nothing to do with public service. Unless we can somehow make that decision and draw that line, preventing the media investigation into the private life of public servants. Then we do have the chance of prevention real good professional private citizens from becoming involved in politics. Because who in there right mind will wish to serve, regardless of how you feel, there must be a line, or what is next.

WalmartWolverine

Boy oh boy Len, what timing. Ordinarily your editorial would have brought a little head nodding. But, due to the number of recent news stories appearing in the Tribune, and then on the heels of winning at least 12 awards in the Associated Press best journalism competition, this forum has brought out a new level of shooting from the hip.

This is what it must be like to witness the prelude of a public lynching.

goodshepard

TooMuch has some very good points about the Village. As a Village resident, when are we going to find out really what is going on with the police department? Does the Village Council know what is going on? The Village should just dissolve and save all of us money. No need to have a Village Manager, no one is left to supervise. Instead of having us recall the Village Council for making all of these bad decisions without getting the residents input. I just say dissolve the Village into the Township, especially if OCS is coming in. No need to pay extra for services we already pay for in our taxes.

TooMuch

@jvh1219, as a matter of fact my life thus far has been pretty clean thankfully. Lucky I guess. And you are correct, late last night or early this morning during my sleepless night I did forget he no longer held the title Editor, I stand corrected. Thank you. A very small matter if read my "huge paragraph." Painter has no problem with other people's messes including yours so why not his? You are also correct that the GH Tribune published Mr. DeYoung's personal DL number and his bank account information after the Village People sent it to them under FOIA. Just goes to show ya they don't know what they are doing over there. It should have been redacted (ya see for whatever reason Ms. Burns wants to run Mr. DeYoung through the mud). She doesn't have any legal means so this is the only way. Did someone say recall? I'm in and I live in the Village...Mrs. Hatton-Verplank?

Barry Soetoro

Your comment on "10 Things to Know" got moderated...so much for clean living.

TooMuch

I saw that Barry. Tribune seems a little sensitive about some comparisons. Also Interesting how they won't allow comments on their "win." You''ve been pretty quick on a few of my comments, I like that you got them and could enjoy the laugh with me. I really do have a good sense of humor.

LessThanAmused

"Also Interesting how they won't allow comments on their "win.""

I saw that earlier this evening and had to chuckle. Kind of blows my "they're just doing that to get hits on the site" theory. If they wanted hits they'd have allowed comments on that one and gotten rich over night!

C'mon Trib, no guts, no glory! :-S

Barry Soetoro

......can't wait for...Dining Divas.......

LessThanAmused

Hope you're not holding your breath in anticipation, the next Diva installment is a good 3 weeks away!

goodshepard

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks.

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