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Published: Thursday, 10/18/2007

Tiffin newspaper denies squelching Seneca County Courthouse story

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN The publisher of the Tiffin Advertiser-Tribune tried yesterday to distance the newspaper from one of its former reporters, who says her former paper would not let her write about Seneca County commissioners possible violation of Ohio s open-meeting law.

Chris Dixon, publisher of Tiffin s daily newspaper, told The Blade yesterday that the Advertiser-Tribune denies that it in any manner ordered its reporter to omit any information that we believed to be relevant and reliable regarding the events surrounding the Seneca County Courthouse renovation project.

Kendall Cable, who now works for the News-Times in Newport, Ore., submitted a sworn affidavit last week in support of The Blade s lawsuit against the county commissioners over alleged public-records violations.

She stated in her affidavit that commissioners admitted they had discussed a 15-year space-needs plan for the county privately before approving it, without public discussion, on Aug. 31, 2006.

The plan called for the demolition of the county s historic 1884 courthouse.

Ms. Cable told The Blade Tuesday that she informed her former editor, Rob Weaver, and the publisher, Mr. Dixon, about her conversation with the commissioners but was told to leave that out of her story.

I presented the information to my editor and publisher regarding the meeting and was told not to write if they did or did not violate the Sunshine Law, that they would handle that in an editorial, Ms. Cable said.

Top journalism ethics experts yesterday said even though her former paper is not backing Ms. Cable, she should be commended for coming forward with information about the possible misdeeds of the commissioners.

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., called Ms. Cable s decision to come forward courageous and enterprising.

One of the most interesting things about journalistic ethics is that the best journalists see their primary duty to the public interest, which is to say that very often when a journalist is unsuccessful at persuading an editor or publisher to run with an important story that reporter will sometimes give the story to another journalist in order for it to see the light of day, said Mr. Clark, who established the Ethics Center at Poynter 25 years ago. Her actions seem a part of that noble tradition, in my opinion.

Asked about her editor s decision not to allow her to report on what commissioners told her about their private deliberations, Mr. Clark said, The definition of journalism is to reveal secrets in the public interest, not to enable powerful people to misbehave.

Publisher responds

Mr. Dixon issued a statement yesterday saying that insinuations from Ms. Cable that the newspaper shirked its responsibilities were unjustified and again serve only to try to create a news story where none should exist.

We chose to focus on the central story that was of concern and interest to the public and gave possible violations of the Sunshine Law the appropriate weight and attention that they deserved in an editorial that ran during this period, the Advertiser-Tribune s publisher said. We did not ignore this issue but chose not to create a story within a story or to divert attention from a significant matter of public interest.

The newspaper did publish a short editorial the next day that said it would wait to see what might transpire before the walls of the courthouse came down.

The commissioners appear to have deliberated details in their supporting document, Space Needs Master Plan, through communication which wasn t part of public meetings, the Sept. 1, 2006, editorial stated. This was apparent when the document was approved without discussion. It remains to be seen whether that could be considered a violation of Ohio s Sunshine Law. It would be ironic if the fate of the courthouse ultimately were to be decided in another court of law, at some future time.

The Advertiser-Tribune let the matter drop and did not take legal action against commissioners to determine if they had violated Ohio s Sunshine Law, which requires that deliberation of public bodies are conducted in the full view of the public.

Violations alleged

Doug Collar, one of six Seneca County residents who sued county commissioners last spring in an attempt to stop the planned razing of the courthouse, said that by referring to the issue in an editorial that was not preceded by a news story about the alleged private discussions of commissioners, the newspaper did not serve readers interests.

Should readers have to decode a story buried in an editorial? he asked. I don t know of anybody who I ve talked to who really understood that [the editorial] was referring to something substantial.

The residents lawsuit claims, among other things, that commissioners violated the open-meetings and open-records law in deciding to demolish the historic courthouse.

The bigger question

John Barga, a Tiffin attorney who represents the preservationists, said he was surprised to learn the Advertiser-Tribune had characterized the commissioners conduct as a story within a story.

I think the bigger question is whether the commissioners complied with Ohio law, Mr. Barga said. Transparency in government, as my clients often remind me, is critical to a free and informed democracy. The commissioners are not above the law. They work for the people of Seneca County, and they must obey the law.

Ohio law requires deliberations on all public business to be done in a public meeting so that the people of Seneca County can understand the reasons and the rationale for the decisions the public officials are making.

He gave Mr. Weaver credit for writing the editorial about the commissioners conduct.

Rob Weaver s editorial on the following day demonstrates to me that he had the courage to report what appeared to be misconduct by public officials, Mr. Barga said.

Ms. Cable said in her affidavit that she reported in her story on the meeting that the vote to adopt the space-needs plan was rendered void of public discussion among the commissioners on details prior to its passage.

She did not include anything in her story about a tape-recorded conversation she had with commissioners afterward, though. She said in her affidavit that she asked them how the plan was drafted since it had not been discussed in an open meeting and was told by then-Commissioner Joseph Schock that he would go into Commissioner Ben Nutter s office to talk things over. One of the commissioners also told her, she said, that they e-mailed each other while drafting the document, sending their comments back and forth by e-mail.

A watchdog role

Joe Skeel, editor of the Quill, a national publication of the Society of Professional Journalists, said it s an important part of any newspaper s role to be a watchdog of government and sometimes that means writing about how decisions by public officials are made.

In this instance, that was just as much of a story as the decision that was made, he said, adding that it could have been written as a sidebar or story separate from the story about the board s decision to adopt the space-needs plan.

If they re not going to make public comments but make the decision behind closed doors, I think that tells you a lot about the group that s making the decision, Mr. Skeel said.

And even if the Advertiser-Tribune didn t let Ms. Cable write what she saw and heard at the commissioners meeting in August, 2006, when they voted to demolish the courthouse, Mr. Clark of the Poynter Institute said she had the right motivation for coming forward now.

There was no self-interest. She was no longer connected to the local community. She could have sat back and watched what happened, Mr. Clark said. But she seemed to be motivated by a personal knowledge that the commissioners may have been acting unethically, a continuing concern for the community she once served, and the greater sense that journalists are to serve the larger public interest.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:jfeehan@theblade.comor 419-353-5972.



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