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Tensions rise over access to local government

By Adam Geller

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 15 2014 6:49 p.m. MDT

Miller pointed to his paper's efforts last year to get data on city inspections of rental housing. After a December 2011 fire in a rental home killed three people, Columbus officials pledged to reform code enforcement. But they rejected the paper's request for records of their efforts. When reporters continued the push for the information, the city eventually turned over data that led to a seven-month probe exposing the city's worst landlords that prompted the city to follow through on its enforcement promise.

Other journalists report similar tensions over access to government information and proceedings.

University of Arkansas at Fayetteville officials discovered in mid-2012 that its fundraising division had overspent its budget by more than $3 million. But over the next five months they never told anybody outside the university. School officials acknowledged the shortfall only when the journal Arkansas Business revealed it in a story. But they would not release auditors' detailed findings, claiming the report amounted to a personnel performance review of the people responsible and was exempt from public records law. They released the report after a lawsuit by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February 2013, but said they were doing so only because the two people involved had consented.

In past years, the university had generally cooperated with information requests, said Sonny Albarado, the newspaper's projects editor. But when the newspaper asked for updated budget information, officials repeatedly said that they didn't have the record requested, only to later learn otherwise, he said.

A university spokesman, Mark Rushing, said the school's chancellor told about 200 people on campus about the shortfall before the first article was published, proving there was no intent to keep it secret.

"I think the university's perspective is that this is the kind of thing, as painful as it is, as large as it is, as unacceptable as it is, it's something we can often take care of and handle," said Rushing, the school's director of strategic communications.

Editors at Idaho's Twin Falls Times-News said they wondered for years why most city council meetings were brief, with quick votes and little discussion about even the most complicated matters. The answer came when an official who had just attended a forum on open government wondered aloud about the "working groups" of council members and others that hashed over most issues privately, without the majority that required doing so in a public forum.

"The biggest struggle was getting a list of the work group because they weren't keeping the list. Not even the mayor knew how many there were," said Kimberlee Kruesi, the newspaper's city government reporter. The council eventually voted to limit the size of work groups and open some of their meetings.

In the Maine case, the Portland Press Herald sued to obtain transcripts of Thompson's initial call to police; another by his mother after she, her son and his girlfriend were shot; and a third from their landlord, who was charged with the murders.

"Two cops show up and three minutes later the kid and his girlfriend are dead, so what's the obvious question? Did the cops know he was being threatened? Did the dispatcher tell them?" said Cliff Schechtman, the newspaper's executive editor. "The reason we fought for this is it's our obligation to tell the community how well the first responders do their job."

The state attorney general's office, which prosecutes murder cases in Maine, argued that the transcripts were intelligence and investigative information whose release might interfere with the case and eventual trial.

"I happen to believe that the public does have a right to know what we're doing, but I also believe we have to make sure that judicial proceedings are fair and that the prosecution doesn't dump all its information in the media and try it in the press," said Bill Stokes, the deputy attorney general who runs the office's criminal division and argued the case.

In a unanimous ruling last November, the state's top court's sided with the newspaper. When the transcripts were released, the paper reported that in the initial 911 call, Thompson told a police dispatcher his landlord was making "death threats," pointing his finger at him as if it were a gun and making shooting sounds. The man charged also called 911. "I told him that I gonna kill you," the transcript showed he said to a dispatcher. "And the police say, no (inaudible) way."

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