EDITORIAL: News not defined by government

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The relationship between the news media and government has always been a colorful one. It is full of ups and downs, and despite good intentions – often on both sides – there can be a fair amount of animosity and tension.

The goal is to aspire to a professional relationship that can be maintained in even the most strained of circumstances. Mutually respectful relationships are not built on being friends, they are based on honesty and understanding of the role the other plays in the community.

The City of Liberty Hill has made the decision to shun The Independent – in many ways severing that professional relationship – choosing only to share what it is bound by law to share. There are no interviews to be had as Mayor Rick Hall informed The Independent on the day he threatened legal action against the paper that all communications between the paper and City would go through the City Attorney. Ultimately, that statement meant the City would no longer answer questions from the community’s newspaper.

Mayor Hall believes the City doesn’t need the newspaper to report on its actions and decisions.

That’s enough reason for pause in itself.

But perhaps the City of Liberty Hill can meet the objective needs of the community and share the pros and cons of every decision. Perhaps the government can explain its decision-making process, include costs, and share the not so savory news about something that doesn’t go quite right.

We are sure the City was more than ready to explain why a pool has not been built, why the splash pad was delayed in opening, why there were cost overruns on the municipal court building project, and explain the costly changes to the water treatment plant expansion. The City would surely regularly update the community through social media on how many employees it has hired, how many vehicles it has purchased and how much money is involved. Perhaps the public can expect the City to soon be posting its expense and revenue reports online to circumvent the newspaper.

Tuesday, the City of Liberty Hill Facebook page made two announcements regarding a pair of projects. Conspicuously absent from those posts was any information about costs.

If a couple of sentences on social media at the government’s convenience – if the government deems it newsworthy – meets the definition of news, then the City has you covered.

If accepting the information the government chooses to share without more depth, context or questions is enough to feel your elected officials are acting in your best interest and serving as good stewards of your tax money, then the City has you covered.

Access to public officials has long been an important check on government in this country, and Liberty Hill is only a microcosm of that.

Hall and others on the Council like to elude to or imply shady deals and a lack of transparency in increasing mentions of the failures of “past administrations.”

But 15 months ago, The Independent could call any department in the City to seek more information on an issue. We could discuss master plans, annexation, building schematics, public finance and public safety with anyone on staff, any member of the Council or the Mayor. That is no longer the case.

After repeated requests for interviews on City issues such as the budget, sales tax revenues and the variety of issues discussed at Council meetings, City Attorney Tad Cleaves responded Monday with his explanation of the current state of communication.

“Tonight’s meeting, as all Council meetings have been, is open to the press and to the public. Hopefully you will get the information you are looking for on agenda items through the presentations, Council discussion and written records. If the meeting packets have not been provided to you, we will make sure to get them to you in a timely fashion.

“Whether Mayor Hall chooses to grant interviews is just that: his choice. In this era of social media, the Mayor has the ability to fulfill his duty to keep the public informed directly through the use of the City’s various internet outlets, which, in addition to being focused on the actual message, reach a wider audience than the Independent without a paywall. It is understandable that losing access to printable quotes from the Mayor can be frustrating, but surely his reticence to speak to you is equally understandable given the quotes that have been attributed to him by others in the Independent. Granting or not granting interviews is not a matter of ‘possibility.’ It is a matter of trust. Until some trust is regained that the stories about Mayor Hall that published in the Independent are based on more than rumors, I would anticipate the Mayor using alternative platforms to communicate with the people of Liberty Hill.”

The explanation reinforced the previously unspoken message that because Mayor Hall is unhappy with the reporting of The Independent he will no longer talk to the paper and will instead share the “news” of the City in other ways.

While it is not critical to the issue, it is worth noting that this seems to be about “the stories about Mayor Hall.” There is much more The Independent reports on than the actions of Mayor Hall. But he has refused to grant the newspaper access to staff or himself based on his personal feelings about the newspaper. Refusing to discuss public projects and policy that impacts tax-paying citizens over a personal conflict is hardly justified in his role as Mayor.

Reporters know they will not always have a pleasant relationship with government officials. They know sometimes they will not have one at all with certain individuals. But to not have one with an entire city government over one elected official’s objections is new.

So The Independent is relegated to reporting what is said in a public meeting, and what information it receives through open records requests in a delayed response.

From now on, the questions that go unanswered will be noted in each story published on City business so that the community is aware of the holes The Independent sees in a story. Such missing information does not imply something is being done wrong, it simply notes it is not being explained or given context. If the community doesn’t care about the answer, then the question will continue to go unanswered, but the role of the media has always been – and always will be – to ask the questions.

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