The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists objects to any ordinance, resolution or policy that restricts members of a public agency from commenting about discussions that the public agency holds in closed sessions.
We make this statement in response to the plan of the Frankfort city commission to add to its ethics ordinance language “that would prohibit commissioners from disclosing the contents of closed sessions,” according to The State Journal.
The Kentucky Open Meetings Act allows public agencies to meet in private for several legitimate reasons. Those exceptions can be abused, so public-agency members should be free to speak about such meetings without fear of official retribution. In the absence of journalists and others who act as watchdogs on government activities, public-agency members are the only available watchdogs, on themselves. They should not be muzzled. If they abuse their right of free speech, they are subject to political retribution by their fellow members and the voters.
Such whistleblowers should not be subject to official retribution, which appears to be the plan in Frankfort. The proposal there arose after one city commissioner told The State Journal what happened in a closed session immediately before the city manager was fired in open session (without any real discussion of the move) and another commissioner said the mayor had three votes going into the meeting to accomplish the firing.
The State Journal has filed a complaint with the attorney general, alleging that two commissioners and the mayor (a majority of the commission) violated the “rolling quorum” provision of the law, “which prohibits elected leaders from hashing out public policy in individual conversations rather than in full view of taxpayers,” as the newspaper accurately describes it in an editorial.
The State Journal also says, “While we agree that such disclosures should be rare, latitude must be left for an elected official to blow the whistle on illegal or improper behavior behind closed doors. An airtight ban almost certainly would violate an elected official’s First Amendment rights, if not a state law that protects whistleblowers.”
We agree, and ask the Frankfort city commission to forget this ill-advised notion – which would surely cost taxpayers for the defense of a lawsuit the city is likely to lose – and pay attention to the open-meetings law.
Tom Eblen, president
Al Cross, secretary
Approved by the chapter board, Oct. 11, 2020.
Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, is the 2020 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.
Barnes, who has worked at the weekly for 44 years, distinguished herself most recently by arranging a special edition that was mailed to every household in Harrison County, funded by local government, less than two days after it was announced that the county had Kentucky’s first case of covid-19, in early March.
“Becky’s initiative was a groundbreaking piece of work that set an example for rural weeklies,” said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“At a time when everyone in her county needed reliable information, not rumors, about a clear and present danger, Becky and the local officials found a way to deliver it,” Cross said. “This example has been followed by other weeklies, and at a time when the pandemic has hurt newspapers’ advertising revenue, it shows how they can tap a new revenue source while rendering essential public service.”
Barnes and her newspaper have continued to focus on the pandemic and its local effects. She and staff writer Lee Kendall streamed live news conferences with the county judge-executive, mayor and public-health director, and thousands watched. She was widely noticed for an April 30 column about masks, which weren’t required at the time but were becoming controversial. It concluded, “I will wear a mask not because I am required to do so, but because it may help. This is all new. We are learning as we go. But if there is a chance it will help – I will wear a mask – for you.”
“Becky Barnes is a great representative of the best in community journalism in Kentucky,” said Tom Eblen, president of the Bluegrass Chapter and a retired columnist and managing editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader. “She has been tireless in her efforts to keep her community informed, while at the same time being a vigilant advocate for open government and the public’s right to know.”
Barnes has repeatedly stood out over a long career, said USA Today photographer Jack Gruber, who nominated her. He noted her support of Boyd’s Station, the arts-and-journalism nonprofit he founded, and a national photography workshop that brought 150 journalists to the county of 18,000 people.
He quoted local Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tomi Clifford: “Becky often finds the light in the darkness whenever a major event has happened. Like in 1997 with the flood, or the coronavirus, she puts everything out there and is super personable, honest and remains positive during the most difficult times to be a journalist.”
Gruber also quoted from Cynthiana Mayor James Smith’s story of Barnes calling out him and the City Commission for appearing to have had an illegal, secret meeting to discuss “a serious issue” before the public meeting. “You would think that would be signs of an adversarial relationship between the mayor and the local press, but that would be the furthest thing from the truth,” Smith said. “Becky has always covered our meetings with fairness and focus on the facts. In fact, when the need is to get information to the public and not just report, Becky is always there to use her position and influence to educate.”
The Cynthiana Democrat is the only place Barnes has ever worked. “When you get it right the first time, there’s no need to keep looking,” she says.
Barnes began working for the newspaper five days after she graduated from Harrison County High School in 1976. A few months later, she married her high school sweetheart, Ernie Barnes. They have two children, Erin Slone and Seth Barnes, and a granddaughter, Olivia Slone.
In 1997 a Licking River flood cut Cynthiana off from much of the county, but Barnes was able to make it into town from her home in the county and took hundreds of flood pictures for a special edition that was printed within hours of the disaster. It included a list of the people at specific shelters, serving families who were divided by the river and had no way of knowing where their loved ones were. The newspaper later published a magazine that told the stories of local heroes and rescues.
So, Barnes was ready when she learned that her county was Kentucky’s “ground zero” for the pandemic. She rode with the mayor and county judge executive to a Frankfort press conference with the governor, and on the way back, told them that the information needed to be in the hands of the county’s residents immediately, not the paper’s Thursday publication day. The county picked up the tab.
“Local journalism isn’t always about the disasters,” Barnes said. “It’s about feeling and knowing the heartbeat of the community. It’s about Christmas parades and Homecoming football games, first tee-ball games and 75th wedding anniversaries. It’s also being prepared for those disasters when they occur.”
The Cynthiana Democrat is one of 47 owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, which is based in Shelbyville, Ky. The company’s executive editor, John Nelson, said, “Becky has been deserving of this level of recognition for a long time. We’re happy for her, proud to count her among our community editors, and pleased that her story — the story about Becky — is being heard.”
Told that she had received the Al Smith Award, Barnes said, “I am so humbled. Every day I come in to work with the same goal: to put out the best newspaper I can for the people of Cynthiana and Harrison County. Being honored by my peers is a bonus.”
The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is its chair emeritus.
The award is usually presented at a dinner in the fall, but presentation is being delayed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is now taking applications for its annual scholarship, named this year in memory of journalist and journalism educator Mike Farrell. The chapter will award at least one $1,000 scholarship to a college journalism student from Kentucky or attending a Kentucky institution. For more information, and to apply online, click here.
Susan Straub, director of communications for Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton, has been honored with the 2019 Jennifer Schaaf Memorial Award.
Straub, who has served as communications director or press secretary for four Lexington mayors, was presented the government communicators award by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Tom Eblen, chapter president and a retired Lexington Herald-Leader columnist and managing editor, made the presentation Dec. 6 in collaboration with the Kentucky Association of Government Communicators.
“This is a special honor,” Straub said. “It’s named for someone I knew and respected, and it comes from people I know and respect. I have been fortunate to work for mayors who believe in transparency and in the importance of keeping the public informed on the decisions their government is making. And our state has been fortunate to have an outstanding and professional press corps.”
Eblen praised Straub’s commitment to the public’s right to be informed about the activities of government.
“Susan personifies the traits of a good public information professional,” he said. “She responds quickly and accurately to reporters’ questions, gets them the information they seek and always balances the demands of journalists and her bosses in an ethical manner. At a time when many citizens express little trust in both politicians and journalists, these traits have never been more important.”
Gorton, who attended the ceremony, praised Straub for her service to Kentucky’s second-largest city. Straub previously worked for mayors Pam Miller, Jim Newberry and Jim Gray.
“I am so proud of Susan for receiving this great honor,” Gorton said. “To be chosen by her peers for this award shows that her commitment to public service and open communication is revered. During the time she served four mayors, she has been indispensable to the daily communication between government and Lexington’s residents.”
Straub began her career as a newspaper reporter and editor before entering government communications. She was named a distinguished alum of the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media in 2018.
The Jennifer Schaaf Memorial Award is presented annually to honor excellence in government communications. Schaaf, who died in 1999, was a respected government communicator who held several positions in Kentucky state government and served as president of both KAGC and as director of the National Association of Government Communicators.
Register now to attend the Investigative Reporters & Editors Watchdog Workshop at the University of Kentucky on Oct. 5. Registration includes a free (or extended) one-year IRE membership.
Speakers include Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader; R.G. Dunlop and Eleanor Klibanoff of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting; Matt Mencarini of the Courier-Journal; James Pilcher of The Cincinnati Enquirer; Claudia Vargas of The Philadelphia Inquirer; Paula Vasan of WHAS11 in Louisville; Cody Winchester of IRE and the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting; and more.
The cost is just $55 for professionals — less than the cost of an annual IRE membership! — and $25 for students. Optional hands-on spreadsheet training will be offered Sunday, Oct. 6 from 9 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. No prior data experience is necessary. Additional cost: $30.
Find all the information and register at: https://www.ire.org/events-
Howard Berkes, who recently retired from National Public Radio, will be in town this week to be honored at the Al Smith Dinner as one of the winners of the 2019 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.
Before he leaves Friday, Berkes has agreed to have an informal lunch with members of the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, as well as other interested local journalists. Join us Friday at noon at Goodfellas Pizza in the Distillery District, 1228 Manchester St.
SPJ members and student and professional journalists interested in joining SPJ are invited to an informal breakfast gathering with journalism educator and former Associated Press Mideast correspondent Terry Anderson, who was held hostage in Lebanon from 1985-1991. He will be in town speaking at the University of Kentucky and has agreed to chat over breakfast before he leaves. We will meet at 8 a.m. Wednesday, April 3, in the restaurant of the Campbell House Lexington, 1375 S. Broadway. We will be ordering from the regular menu, but please let Tom Eblen know if you plan to attend so we can reserve enough seating.