There are indications that the media are being manipulated in Jacksonville.
This is a serious matter, and local newspapers and television stations are derelict in their duty by not using their vast resources to end the practice.
The public is the loser.
In recent weeks, Eye on Jacksonville has asked three local government offices for information. We waited patiently for the information to be provided. To date, none has been.
They were not difficult questions requiring lengthy research.
Example 1: We asked the School Board public information office two questions, at separate times. One was for a list of textbooks used in local schools. The other was whether any local school teachers had been accused of sex crimes, which has been a trend in recent months throughout Florida.
Example 2. We asked the General Counsel’s Office for information about civil lawsuits against the city – how many, the resolution, the cost. Again, no response other than “we will try to provide the information.”
Example 3: We asked the Sheriff’s Office for the current response time to calls and the number of sworn personnel. The public information officer ignored our request so we filled out a public records request form on the police Web site. All we got was a response asking us to clarify what we wanted, as if it were confusing.
If it had been just one case, we would have put it down to bureaucratic inefficiency. But three?
Every question we asked these agencies was for information they should have readily available and none of it is exempted from the public records laws of Florida.
We could go to court and force the release of the information, if we had the resources. But why should we have to?
When I covered local government for a newspaper in the 1970s, politicians and bureaucrats were for the most part honest and open. Government in the sunshine was honored.
I could walk into any office In City Hall and talk to anyone, and look at any records. It had been the same with the local police when I covered crime in the 1960s.
As a practical matter, if I walked into the mayor’s office, for example, and he was talking to several people and the conversation stopped, I knew it was about something they didn’t want me to hear and I left. (Later, I would call the participants individually and one or more always would relate what had been discussed.)
Today, at the Sheriff’s Office, reporters don’t talk to cops or roam police headquarters. The only information they get is what the police choose to reveal.
Why, 50 years later, local government offices have shut down access is both puzzling and disturbing. My reporter’s instincts go on full alert.
But I expect politicians and bureaucrats to act secretively. What is even worse is that the local media allows them to get away with it.
The media loves to laud themselves as guardians of the public’s “right to know.” But are they?
The mayor, City Council and School Board need to ensure the public that local government is fully complying with the state’s sunshine laws relating to records and meetings, if they want to retain the public’s confidence, and have nothing to hide.