A word from the Editor: In support of the Chronicle

© 2018-Cottage Grove Sentinel

More often than not, the Creswell Chronicle is the only news source in the room covering the Creswell School District. The only way Creswell residents know what the board is discussing and deciding is by reading what the Chronicle reports. It’s the only way any of us know what any board is doing—community reporters sit-in on meetings that start well after the work day has ended and stretch into the night. They race back to newsrooms to write stories or file from the parking lot on a laptop that they hope gets them through another six months from the driver’s seat of a car they pray makes it another year.

Chronicle Editor Erin Tierney was reporting from a parking lot on March 14 — but she wasn’t filing a story. She was making phone calls and checking state statute because she was kicked out of a meeting she had every right to be in.

The state of Oregon allows press to attend executive sessions of public boards. Tierney was settling in for the March 14 executive session of the Creswell School Board when she was reportedly shooed from the room by board chair Mike Anderson. According to Tierney, superintendent Todd Hamilton later told her press access was denied due to the nature of the conversation, which included a student’s medical records. However, ORS 192.660(4), which legally bars the media if a school board intends to consider matters that pertain to a student’s confidential medical records, was not listed on the March 14 agenda.

Instead, the board’s agenda included ORS 192.660(2)(b) and ORS 192.660(2)(f), which address complaints brought against a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent who does not request an open hearing — all of which are open to the media in order to assure transparency. 

Though for-profit entertainment publications, corporate-funded media machines and brand-obsessed reality show anchors can fabricate and manipulate information to support their narrative, journalists at small community newspapers are working hard do much more with much less in an effort to keep their readers informed and up-to-speed on what’s happening in their communities.

That’s why what happened next, according to Tierney and the Chronicle, is concerning. Public bodies have an obligation to the tax-paying public to provide a certain level of transparency. This is mandated at both state and federal levels and cannot be discarded or manipulated at the whim of an individual simply because they currently sit in the chairman’s seat. 

So, when Tierney requested the minutes from the March 14 meeting she was thrown out of, she should have received them. Instead, what she got was a regurgitation of the board’s agenda. According to the Chronicle, the minutes — required to be recorded by state law — that were finally provided by the district did not include motions or the result of any vote that took place that evening. And while the Chronicle, like any newspaper, must follow certain restrictions when it comes to what can be reported on in an executive session, state law has made it clear that those meetings are imperative to providing a comprehensive understanding of board decisions, and it allows the confirmation of facts outside of executive session by reporters. 

All of that was made impossible by the Creswell School Board’s decision to deny access to the Chronicle.

What happened during those 45 minutes the board met behind closed doors?

I don’t know. And neither do you.

The freedom of the press cannot be separated from the right to bear arms. It was considered by our founders to be so vital to the fabric of what they were building that they put it in the very first amendment.

Reporters sitting at the Eugene City Council meeting, or the Yoncalla basketball game, or the Creswell School Board are there asking questions because you deserve to know what’s happening in the community you live, work, play and vote in.

What is your city council doing? Where does your high school team stand in the state rankings? What was that thing happening on over on Main St. the other day? Is there a fundraiser this weekend? What is the school board doing?

The Chronicle, like The Sentinel, works with a small staff and doesn’t always get to every story on the list. It’s simple math for newsrooms like ours.

But when public bodies make it harder for small newsrooms to do their jobs, they are doing a disservice to their community — and someone should say something about it because the only way any of this works is if everyone plays by the rules and newspapers are allowed to inform the public, no matter the size of their reporting staff. 

So, we’re saying something and supporting a neighboring, small community newspaper whose readership, just like this one, deserves to be an informed one.