Josh Bergeron: Sunshine remains best disinfectant

Published 12:05 am Sunday, March 10, 2019

Every year, news organizations come together to celebrate something known as Sunshine Week, which recognizes the importance of access to public information.

This year, Sunshine Week’s mission seems especially relevant locally as we’ve worked diligently to report on the town of Landis’ finances — from state government concerns dating back decades to personnel records and budgets that don’t quite make sense. And the work of newspapers, in print and online, is made more important by the fact that usually they’re the only reliable source of local news for small communities. The alternative often is social media, which an estimated 20 percent of Americans say is their primary source of news, according to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center. And sites such as Facebook certainly do not pay journalists to report on local news.

Salisbury is fortunate in that it has a strong local newspaper and a full-time TV news reporter assigned to our city in WBTV’s David Whisenant

News organizations, including the Post, often schedule in advance stories with the mission of Sunshine Week in mind. In 2016, for example, we published a series of stories profiling travel expenses incurred by local government entities on behalf of board members. A key finding in those stories was the degree to which the town of Landis spent money on travel.

Former Mayor James Furr requested reimbursement for more than 90 meetings in the span of a year and a half, our reporting found in 2016. That’s about five meetings per month, ranging from a cancer run in Landis to a funeral at which Furr spoke.

But sunshine — releasing and reporting on public information — is not just important for one week in March 2019.

In 2017, our reporting on Fibrant found that the utility was made to look profitable on paper when it had not been for years. Salisbury City Manager Lane Bailey was hired with the understanding that Fibrant was profitable, too, our reporting found. Now, a private operator, Hotwire, is in the midst of taking over the municipal network. For the foreseeable future, Salisbury will simply be a lessor, not an operator.

Also in 2017, we reported on an incident in which a resident escaped from a locked ward at the Brian Center on Statesville Boulevard.

In 2014, we reported that former Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris gave three members of his management team raises of more than $13,000 during a reorganization that was neither announced to the public nor the City Council.

At Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station, we reported for years on how coal ash ponds affected the water quality for nearby residents. There were larger forces at play, but coal ash at Buck will be excavated and recycled. Residents were provided with clean water, too, through water lines extended into Dukeville.

Time after time — from business to crime — the Post has worked to dig deep into and fight for the release of public records in its reporting. The truth can be muddy and it’s our job to provide clarity.

Lately, instead of speaking to the substance of the news, public officials from the White House to local government trot out the “fake news” cliche. That was the case in February when Landis Mayor Mike Mahaley, in an unbelievable display of arrogance, called the Post’s reporting “fake news” just days before the start of a state embezzlement investigation.

At the risk of preaching to the choir, sunshine is the best disinfectant — that is, working with the mindset that every document in city hall belongs to the public and decisions made by our government, business and nonprofit leaders should not remain private.

For our democracy to function, nationally and locally, we must be able to easily access news and information that’s trustworthy. So, while this is Sunshine Week, it’s not simply seven days during which we should recognize the importance of access to public information. It’s a reminder of the mission that newspapers and news outlets across the country share — to seek the truth and report it.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

Comments