Mark Mahoney, editorial page editor of the The Post Star (Glens Falls, N.Y.), received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. Mahoney was awarded for "his relentless, down-to-earth editorials on the perils of local government secrecy, effectively admonishing citizens to uphold their right to know." See http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2009-Editorial-Writing for links to the articles.
We recently chatted with Mahoney about the importance of open access—especially on the local level—and what citizens can do to continue to uphold their rights to information. The interview was conducted by Adam Maksl for NFOIC.
Your Pulitzer citation commends you for your “relentless, down-to-earth editorials on the perils of local government secrecy.” To what extent is there a problem with secrecy on the local level? Is it a widespread problem?
I think in our area you kind of see it sporadically, with very certain issues. School boards tend to be more secretive for some reason. I think they are a bit more sensitive to the public. I think that the citizens are more passionate about what goes on in schools than in the town government. So, you do see the school boards being a little bit more secretive. They are a little bit sensitive with their contracts, because everyone is always busting on teachers, contracts, awarding raises, and that sort of thing.
I don’t think it’s a widespread problem, at least around here. But, you have to be vigilant with them and you have to keep them on their toes all the time. You have to always educate them about what the rules are and what they’re allowed to keep from us, what they’re supposed to release, what meetings they’re supposed to keep open, and what they’re allowed to close.
A lot of them—either they don’t know or they just assume something that they hear. They think they can go behind closed doors when they talk about personnel, which they can’t do, or any time when they are talking about possible litigation, which they can’t do. But they sort of hear the terms and think that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So you have to have an educated reporting staff and an educated community to make sure that everything stays open, because they will operate in secret if given the option.
Is there express intent on the part of local officials to make things secret or is there more of a misunderstanding of what should be open to the public?
I think there’s a little bit of both. I think there’s certain information that they don’t want the public to find out about and they’ll deliberately try to keep it from you. That’s why you always have to be watching them and challenging them, and making sure the citizens are informed about what their rights are so that if we’re not there, somebody else might challenge them. And the more you do that kind of thing—either with the editorials, or the blog, or with the reporters showing up, or when more and more citizens inform themselves and start doing it—I think [public officials] are less inclined to [try to restrict access to information]. They don’t want to get caught.
Do people inherently trust local governments more? Do you think that there’s more of a desire to try to operate in secret at a local level because of direct contact with constituents?
There’s probably more of a familiarity there. But I think that the closer the local governments are to the citizens then the more afraid the officials are of backlash and criticism. I think that’s why a small local newspaper like us can be effective in both educating them and criticizing them in editorials.
I think it’s more effective on the local level because they do run into their neighbors. When we run an editorial or when somebody gets closed out of a meeting, these guys run into these people on the streets. They go to church with them, and they go to stores with them. I think when you are farther away in a higher level of government like the state legislature or federal government, they are more insulated from the criticism. That’s why we try to keep our local legislatures on their toes. As far as the government as a whole, I think the further you get away form the grass roots, the more comfortable they are operating in secret.
We used to have a real hard time getting information from people a long time ago because they would automatically tell us we couldn’t have it. The more you educate the clerks and the public officials, the more they are like, “Let’s give it to them rather than put ourselves through the hassle of being challenged and criticized for being secret.” I think we’ve opened up the doors by being on top of them, and then they find out it’s not so terrible to give us the information most of the time.
One of the things you push for in your editorials is that citizens exercise FOI rights and that those rights are not reserved for the press alone. Why is it important for citizens to exercise those rights?
It’s a big part of it. If they just think that the media are the only ones who know about the law and that [governments] have to turn records over to and be accountable to, and then we’re not there, [public officials] are going to go about their business. I think the more you get people involved in taking ownership of their government, you’ll be more effective spreading it out. We try to educate people to do it themselves. We give resources to them, like providing FOI letters and giving them guidance. It empowers citizens to take control of their own government. It’s all kind of new to a lot of citizens. They don’t realize that they can have the same information that we’re entitled to. It’s everyone’s information. You see a lot of people start to take on that role. It opens up government more when citizens are doing it themselves rather than just us.
Tell me about a story of an individual whom you’ve helped get access to open records on his or her own.
We’ve had several of these examples. A lady wrote in and said that she was trying to get a video tape from the school bus camera because her kids were getting harassed by the school bus driver. She wrote a letter and said that, “Last year, I wrote you guys and was trying to get records from the school board and they were going to charge me 75 cents per copy. Then I asked you guys, and you said that they could only charge be 25 cents and that I could get them electronically.” But she didn’t know any of that. She harassed the school board and finally got them to say that it was 25 cents per copy and agree to send it to her electronically without charging her. In that way, we helped her get what she needed. We helped facilitate her goal.
We’ve had other examples when people have written in and asked for help getting something. One guy has been trying for years to get the salaries of town employees. And they just wouldn’t give it to him. It’s a basic thing—one sheet of paper—and it’s a record that they have to release. And they just wouldn’t give it to him because he was a pain in their butt and they didn’t like him. So I filed the FOIL and got it in two seconds. After that, he’s been able to get it with no problem.
I think when you file with one government board, it spreads. They pay attention to what goes on in other towns. … So it works. It takes a little time to educate everybody, and you always have new people coming in that you need to reeducate. You never run out of things to do.
I’m here to report on the public’s business, so tell me what the public’s business is. You work for us, so let us know. Whenever you get stonewalled, it kind of makes you angry. So I’ve made it one of my missions as a reporter and editor to make sure that the government stays open. Just give us what we’re entitled to, what the public’s entitled to.