By Michael Howell, Publisher, Bitterroot Star
At the Bitterroot Star we are used to getting pats on the back and comments like “good job,” and “keep it up,” from people who appreciate the invaluable service supplied by an old fashioned independent weekly newspaper. People express appreciation for everything from the local high school sports coverage to the coverage of community events and the government reporting.
Lately, however, people have been sending money along with their appreciative remarks. Some just saying thanks. Some saying thanks for particular actions that they realize are costly and want to contribute to the cause. It is understandable that they would want to contribute. After all we offer an essential public service.
But it left us wondering about how to handle such gifts. Here’s our answer.
The Bitterroot Free Press Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging and supporting investigative reporting and, when necessary, supporting legal actions aimed at protecting the public’s constitutional rights to information, open meetings and due process.
If you see a real value in the fruits of investigative reporting or the fruits of litigation in order to obtain information or enforce open meeting laws and want to contribute to those efforts, here’s a way.
By donating to the Bitterroot Free Press Foundation you will, for instance, be able to help out your local weekly newspaper in its quest for information under the Freedom of Information Act or its efforts to keep the government honest by enforcing the open meeting laws.
These actions can be quite costly. The Bitterroot Star was involved in two lawsuits against the County Commissioners just last year to see that our public notice and open meeting laws are enforced. Even if our legal costs should be reimbursed after a successful case, we still need some money up front just to be in the game. Legal costs in which the news company must take the initiative are an easy thing to eliminate from the budget. You just don’t take it on. That seems to be the solution adopted by many large corporate firms. For a small independent newspaper, budgeting for these sorts of things is even more difficult.
Unbeknownst to many, the cost of information is skyrocketing and some legal costs related to getting access to information are not reimbursable even if you are successful.
One such action, for instance, is the Bitterroot Star’s pending request for access to a human rights complaint filed in relation to problems at the County Road Department. These requests are administered through a semi-judicial process before the Human Rights Bureau requiring an attorney, briefs and responses to briefs. But there is no chance for recovery of those legal expenses as there is in some court actions. We are basically just wasting the money if our request is denied, or we are buying the information if we are successful. Some of our readers have pitched in to help us with these costs and the matter has been briefed before the Human Rights Bureau.
Another example of costly information is our recent request to the Missoula County Public School District for information about Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey while she was employed there. In this case we ended up in court just because we asked for some information. The school district, without answering our questions, went right into district court and filed a petition naming us as defendants, along with other media and Stamey, asking a judge to review the information it would provide in camera, that is privately in chambers, and decide which information can be released and which can’t. So, we can sit by and watch, or we can lawyer up, go to court, and argue our case.
If we had sued the school district for not releasing the information, we would have the possibility of recovering attorney fees if we prevailed. By rushing into court for a Declaratory Judgment and naming us as defendants, the school district has pre-empted that possibility. Our only chance now is to have a lawyer argue our position with no hope, really, of recovering the expenses. By handing it off to the court, the school district has ducked out on its responsibility to make the determination about releasing the information we requested and placed us in the position of having to pay for it.
Aside from these cases we are also now being threatened with litigation over our coverage of the Treasurer’s debacle. To top it off the Commissioners appear to be inviting the public to sue them over their handling of the affair.
As you can see, the newspaper’s responsibility to stick up for the public’s right to know, and for government accountability, can easily outstrip its budget. So if you would like to see your local newspaper pursue information with vigor, and see them hold government officials accountable, if you would like to see your local newspaper wade in on your behalf without hesitation, you now have a way to help out. Of course, this opportunity for financial help in court proceedings would be a welcome option to our newspaper. But this would be an option open to any business or individual facing legal costs related to freedom of information requests or open meetings or due process violations. This kind of legal fund will certainly be an asset to the whole community and stands to be an incredible resource for protecting some of our most valuable rights as a free and democratic society.