Saturday, February 11, 2006

Reprint of Mike Helm's 2006-02-09 Article

The News Reporter

County still operating in the dark


As someone who covers county government on a daily basis, I can tell you that things are getting worse, not better.

I support my colleague Deuce Niven of the Tabor-Loris Tribune, who recently lambasted in his weekly column County Attorney Steve Fowler for not turning over what both newspapers believe is a pubic document. The News Reporter and Tabor-Loris Tribune have taken the county to court and the case will be heard Monday.

We have a county administration that wants to operate in secret and a county manager who apparently views the press as his enemy.

Interim County Manager Jim Varner does not speak to the local press, whether to a reporter from The News Reporter or the Tabor-Loris Tribune. Fowler, who apparently has become the county’s public information officer, does not return phone calls, despite promising he would be accessible when he took the job.

Varner told a recent meeting of the Greater Whiteville Chamber of Commerce that we have a hostile press in this county. No, sir, we have an administration hostile to the press. No one around here remembers the last time this newspaper sued the county. I don’t remember the last time a county manager wouldn’t talk to the press.

I have always cooperated with the county government when necessary for the good of the county – for example, by temporarily withholding benign details on issues at the request of county leaders. At the same time, we have tried to hold our leaders accountable when necessary for the good of the people and revealed information that they would rather keep secret.

As a reporter, you make friends and enemies. Powerful people get mad. Some stay mad but most forgive and forget because they need us, just as we need them. Reporting the news is a cooperative enterprise between the government and newspapers most of the time.

At times, however, when the government wants to hide something, government and press come into conflict. Here is another recent example of life in the trenches.

On Thursday, Feb. 2, I made a public information request to the county attorney by e-mail. I wanted copies of the 2004, 2005 and proposed 2006 contract between the county and Classic Aviation, which manages the airport. I also wanted to know if the county had contracted Talbert & Bright, a Wilmington engineering firm that just recommended a five-year plan for airport expansion at a cost of $4.3 million, or funneled the money for the study through Classic Aviation. Local taxpayers would pick up approximately $2 million of that cost.

On Thursday evening, I followed up by phone and spoke to a county staff member, who said she would have the information by noon Friday.

When I called her Friday afternoon, she said that “they” could not find the information but would keep looking. I called back at 4:30 and they still could not find the information.

She said she would mail it to me when it was located. I told her, no thanks, I would gladly stop by and pick it up.

Monday night, county commissioners met for their regularly scheduled meeting. The airport contract was not on the agenda.

At the end of the meeting, there was an item added to the agenda – the 2006 contract with Classic Aviation. Commissioners approved it unanimously.

The story did not appear in the paper Monday so there was no chance for the public or potential other bidders to know about the item ahead of time.

When I finally did receive the information from the county attorney’s office, a copy of the 2005 contract was not in the packet. I called and was told there was no separate contract for 2005 and that the 2004 contract had been automatically carried over.

I rarely speak out at county commission meetings but this time I did. I told the board how I felt I was misled by the county attorney’s office and the public was denied access to the contract information before the commissioners voted.

Not one commissioner had a comment, not even board rebel James Prevatte.

On Wednesday, Varner did return my call in response to questions about the airport contract. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a new relationship.

Mike is talking about something that many here in Columbus County agree with. A lot of people are upset with the way the board is running things. I only hope that this will cause more people to get involved with the running of our county.

posted by David at 4:37 AM :: Permalink ::

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