Friday, June 21, 2013

What's Fair Game When Public Officials Get Careless?

OK, that's a loaded question.  Careless isn't even quite the right word. Here's the context.  The Redistricting Board has had working meetings.  There are Board members in and out almost all day each day as the techs work on maps.  Sometimes the Board members are working on maps in their offices in the back, sometimes they're out in the meeting room.  It's an open meeting, though it's a work session.  It's not really formal.  People are trying out ideas.  They're talking casually.  Even joking.  Except I'm there.  So, careless only in the context of being 'on' long enough that they might forget there's a blogger in the room.

Talking is intermittent.   So I'm not sitting their typing everything they're saying the way I often do at meetings.  And sound recording is iffy because of the ventilation noise due to the unusual heat outside and the broken air conditioning in the building. Mostly they aren't saying anything. There's not much happening to video tape.  People working on their computers with little changes happening on the screens that wouldn't mean much to someone watching.    

So, when the chair stopped to talk to Ray about the map he was working on, I got out my pocket cam and turned on the video to see what I could get.

What rules should I use to decide what to post in this situation?  Here are some of my thoughts on this.

1.  It's a public meeting.  Everything is fair game.  They know I'm a blogger and that I'm listening.  They need to be professional about how they handle themselves and in what they say. 

2.  It's good for people doing serious work to joke at times.  But joking often reveals what they are thinking.  Joking is a way, in some settings, to say what you're really thinking, but then be able to back off and say, "Just kidding" if it doesn't go down well.
  • Some jokes are neutral - joking about the weather and heat in the room.  
  • Some jokes are self-effacing - talking about one's own faults.  This works ok if you you're generally pretty good at what you do.  It shows modesty, though it could come across as false modesty.  It might not work so well if you joke about a fault that is driving everyone crazy.  
  • Some jokes are directed at others - your perceived opponents (in court or the media for example) or people over whom you have power.  Or the public. These are not jokes you should make publicly.  These are for relieving stress with your inner circle.  Such as something like, "Not even Wallerie would sue over this." [Wallerie is the attorney for the Riley plaintiffs in Fairbanks.]  OK, this seems innocuous enough and Wallerie would probably laugh if he heard it.  And I'm guessing if Wallerie were in the room, they still might have said it.  It's natural given the growing sense of them versus us when you're being challenged in court.  Yet there's a difference between being personally sued and when you're being sued as a public official doing your job.  You should be more like athletes - competitive in the game, but able to go out together for a drink afterward.  But the Board does seem to be a tad touchy about the Plaintiffs and members of the Supreme Court.   It's understandable, but the Board should recognize that people have differences of opinion and  that's part of the process.  If they take it personally and get bristly with some people they become less effective in the quest to find a fair and equitable plan for all Alaskans.  
3.  What if people are saying things that help reveal the process?  What's going on?  That's really what I'm here to learn about and to share with the world.  After all, the point of making this all as transparent as possible is to make sure the Board does its job as competently and as fairly as possible.

4.  What if they don't know I'm recording what's going on?  Again, it's a public meeting and they know there's a blogger in the room.  They're public officials.  They're grown ups.  No, they can't let their guards down too far.

5.  What if it prevents them from talking frankly about their doubts and questions?  I'm not doing "Gotcha" journalism.   I'm not trying to get headlines by trapping people into saying something stupid or by writing things out of context to make them look bad.  But anything going on at a public meeting is on the record.  Even these work sessions that aren't (to my knowledge) being recorded or transcribed.  In fact, that's even more reason for me to be vigilant and to record what's happening.  Last year, I thought long and hard before posting a video of the Board's attorney talking pretty candidly about what he thought about an Alaska Supreme Court's decision.  It was during a break.  But I had my camera out and he was looking at me.  And I'd recorded him like that a number of times before.  Even so, I sought guidance from journalism ethics sites and  people with actual journalism degrees before I posted it.  The clincher for me was that he said pretty similar things in an written appeal to the Supreme Court.   I'm glad I did all that, because he wasn't pleased when he saw me next and complained that he didn't know I was recording.  And he wouldn't talk to me again if I was recording.

All this is preface to a video that's pretty bad technical quality - both video and audio.   I took it because it was the first time I actually heard the Chair talking more than a sentence here or there during the work sessions and he was close enough to me there was a chance the audio would get past the noise of the cooling equipment.  It was more to just give readers a sense of how this process works, how decisions are made, the kind of conversations that go on.

Ray, one of the new techs on loan from the Department of Natural Resources, was working on Anchorage and the chair came over to see what he was doing.  It seemed like a good thing to record.  To let readers get a sense of how this works.  As it went along - it's pretty brief  - it touched on a topic I've been trying to understand.  Exactly how much are they starting from scratch and how much is borrowed from old maps?  Both Torgerson and Eric had already told me they started with blank maps.  Torgerson even showed me on the computer how to create a new blank map.  But how, I keep asking myself, did these maps often seem to look so similar to old ones and how did they get such similar numbers for the districts?  This seems to add to my questions here.

The audio's not great, so I've written up a transcript that, I think, catches the meaning if not all the exact words.
Torgerson:  So these deviations came from?
Ray:  Already in the plan????
Torgerson:  See how tight those are?  That one is zero
So there are already constitutional in their nature?  So you’r saying you didn’t change these from one plan to the next.  The court said we might have painted ourselves into a corner because we didn’t do something different from what we did.   But in reality, there’s not a hell of a lot we can we can do with a lot of those districts.  Particularly the ones that are kind of isolated.  The ones like you’re working on, the south Anchorage and maybe the north Anchorage,  east and west, yeah, those are in play. The ones like 28 are pretty hard to do anything with that.  But if you change one, you might change all, you might have to because of deviation.

1 comment:

  1. Why would candor reveal anything amiss if genuine sincerity was really in play?

    ...I'd just like to point out that 'stretching credulity' is fairly inconsistent with 'genuinely beleaguered'.

    With this board's history, stretching credulity seems to be a feature, not a bug.


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