Leaders under the microscope and a call for on-the-job FOI stories

When my former SPJ campus chapter conducted an FOI audit two years ago, we asked for the contracts of some head honchos at the University of Florida. You’re looking at superstars like basketball coach Billy Donovan and beloved football coach Urban Meyer. We also went after UF President Bernie Machen’s contract and UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley’s.

I wish I still had the documents with me, because the perks and the pay listed made our heads spin, but we supposed the cushy contracts weren’t too surprising.

Conducting the mini-audit didn’t prove to be the challenge we were looking for, thanks in part to the strength of Florida’s Sunshine Law. The University of Florida willingly handed over the contracts in a timely fashion. There was no fuss, and we ran out of time to make a worthy news story out of the findings.

[Has your chapter or news organization conducted an FOI audit that proved to be difficult, and do you have tips for others who would like to do their own audit? Have you revealed pertinent information about community leaders that the public had a right to know? If so, please share in the comments.]

We had hoped to some day make public information requests for something better, something harder to grasp. We were happy to know that UF just handed over the contracts without complaint, but we wanted to find those documents that would produce a front-page story. Perhaps it was unfair to want to go for the university “jugular,” but we wanted to put UF through the ultimate FOI test.

It was definitely a relief being in Florida, which is a leader in FOI openness. But it’s still a shame that some agencies around the nation can’t catch up to 2010.

In recent news, the South Carolina Press Association has made numerous requests to law enforcement agencies that have been denied or altered. For example, a city council member’s name was redacted from a police report, and a Columbia police chief refused to release car collision records that involved the newly elected mayor, according to a column in the Aiken Standard.

According to Jay Bender, an attorney who represents the S.C. Press Association and teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications, there is an attitude that has existed in South Carolina since the plantation days, where a small group in power “made decisions and told the rest of the population that the right decision had been made.”

This backwards way of thinking is the reason why journalists still need to pool their resources and FOI knowledge to keep community leaders in check. I sat in an interview once and told a Florida newspaper that I really liked the fact they had a Watchdog section. The paper’s representative admitted that they rarely updated the section nowadays and that it isn’t quite what they wanted it to be.

Because news organizations have a lack of manpower and/or funding to make important record requests, they are letting leaders run amuck. And when leaders are running amuck, then readers are wondering why local journalists aren’t blowing the whistle.

We’re a bunch of FOI-loving people, so let’s get some story-sharing going. We’d love to hear from you.

April Dudash is the summer 2010 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and does the bidding of SPJ Headquarters. She graduated from the University of Florida in May and has been an SPJ member since 2006.

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