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Smith: 10 real life, North Iowa reasons why we need local journalism

I sat down this week to write a column expounding on the necessity of local journalism.

I could write about the three local newspapers in Iowa that we've lost in the last month, according to a recent column by Julie Gammack in the Des Moines Register

I could also write about journalists who are increasingly targeted just for doing their jobs. One journalist in California had a knife pulled on him while he was covering a rally.

But you already know about all of this. And if national data can be believed, it has yet to convince many of you about the importance of having a newspaper serving as a watchdog in your communities.

So instead, I give you 10 "yes, this actually happened" reasons why local journalism matters.  

#10 - EQUAL OPPORTUNITY? I recently had the opportunity to cover a school board meeting for a teammate. Since this is a pandemic, where gathering is frowned upon, I contacted the school to ask for the link to watch the livestream. "We don't offer that to the public," a district official said. Well, OK. Off I went to the meeting, where I found half the board participating in the meeting via -- what else? -- livestream. Not surprisingly, no one from the public was there.

#9 - FINANCE FINESSE (NOT) At another district's school board meeting, a representative of the district's insurance firm took board members step-by-step through changes on a proposal for continuing service. He repeatedly referenced pages in a packet every board member received while the public watched the livestream, unable to follow along to see if it was a better deal or not because none of that information was provided with the board's online agenda.

#8 - AND SPEAKING OF AGENDAS A North Iowa county recently sent out an agenda for its board meeting with a line included that said "Public Hearing on Policies #40 and #41." There was no further explanation, nor was there any attachments to the agenda identifying what the policies were. After more than an hour of emails and phone calls, the reporter finally sussed out that the "policies" were in fact proposed zoning changes, but how would anyone in the public looking at the agenda actually know that? 

#7 - LIVESTREAM, PART II There is a North Iowa school district superintendent who is in charge of giving "permission" to people who logged on to view the livestream of the district's meeting. That in and of itself isn't very transparent, but this particular superintendent also has a "policy" that if you don't sign in before the meeting begins, you don't get permission to attend. If you wish to view only a part of the meeting that's relevant to you, it's a coin toss whether you'll be allowed.

#6 - P IS FOR PUBLIC At yet another, different school district board meeting, a board member asked the chairperson why the board was being asked to approve one company's bid without the public ever having had the chance to review any of the other bids. He was told that that was the way the chairperson had seen it done elsewhere. No one from the public would've been able to see the other bids without a specific request.

#5 - FIRED OR ? Another North Iowa school board noted on its agenda that it was going in to a closed session to discuss personnel issues (legal under Iowa public meeting law). When it emerged, it voted to open the posting for a position in the district. When district officials were asked what the status was of the person who had held the position, they did not give a direct response.

#4 - FIRED OR ?, PART II  When the reporter working on item #5 in this column contacted another source for the story, he gave the reporter a complete, on the record account of what happened. A second source confirmed the information given by the first. A story was published.

#3 - FIRED OR ?, PART III While at home after working on item #5 in this column, the reporter was contacted by one of the sources who claimed that the superintendent had called him and told him if the story went to press with his comments in it, he would be fired. When the reporter left a message for a school board member to verify this happened, that school board member turned around and contacted the source to reiterate the threat.

#2 - NOTHING TO SEE HERE A North Iowa county board was having issues with a contractor who had done some work for them. Some members were particularly concerned as they thought there were safety issues involved. In response to a public information request by a reporter, the county's attorney said neither the county nor any of its representatives corresponded with the contractor in question during the time the concerns were talked about at the meeting. But a review of previous board meeting minutes showed a county department head saying just the opposite -- he had conversed at length with the contractor in question about the problems.

#1 - LEGALLY BINDING A North Iowa mayor fired a police officer. There was no indication that the city's governmental body knew it was going to happen in advance. There was nothing on any agenda to indicate it. The city recently received a letter from the officer's attorney threatening legal action. Only after we made a public information request were we given a copy of the lawyer's letter. We still hadn't received the city's response to the letter, 17 business days after we asked for it.

Journalists don't just throw some words on a computer screen and call it good. We sit through endless meetings, examine piles of documents and challenge public officials when we feel they aren't hewing to the letter of the law -- so you don't have to. 

And while I doubt very much that in each of these instances, there was foul play afoot -- it's much more likely a case of not understanding the law -- I nonetheless wonder: If we weren't there to intercede on your behalf, who would?


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