WHY THE HUMBOLDT COUNTY FAIR BOARD WILL ASK PRESS TO "STAY PUT" AT PUBLIC MEETINGS: SUNSHINE WEEK 2013
The third week of March is “Sunshine Week.” Created by journalists, it’s about the public’s right to know what their governing boards are doing and why. Over the past few months, News Channel 3 has been reporting on the events and decisions surrounding the Humboldt County Fair Board, after their decision not to renew the contract of their General Manager after 22 years. In discussing their meetings, some interesting topics have come to light with the community, other public boards, and in local journalism.
At the board’s meeting on February 25th, a board member shouted at a Ferndale journalist to stop taking pictures. The outburst interrupted the proceedings of the meeting, and changed the tone of the boardroom. For the sake of complete disclosure, the Ferndale journalist- Caroline Titus- is married to the former fair General Manager, the one who’s contract was not renewed and caused the public to start asking questions of the fair board.
News channel 3 did not air the footage from said part of the meeting when it was originally covered in February, but sunshine week encourages journalists to enlighten readers and viewers to issues dealt with in the journalism profession that wouldn’t otherwise have been talked about. In contributing to this year’s Sunshine Week theme; “The Future State of Local News,” News Channel 3 explores the fair board’s apparent violations of the Brown Act and public information.
“That's the first time ever that at a public meeting I have ever been berated publicly," said Ferndale Enterprise Editor and Publisher Caroline Titus, who has been a journalist for 30 years. She purchased the now 134-year-old newspaper in 1998.
“I have no other reporters, I’m a one woman show,” Titus said, which is why she was both scribbling notes, and acting as her newspaper’s photographer at a recent meeting of the Humboldt County Fair Board when something out of the ordinary happened.
"What don't you understand about no pictures during the meeting? Is it hard for you to understand that?” said Director Mel Berti during a February 25th board meeting.
Titus’ response, "I'm sorry do you want me to engage in a discussion with a board member? I don't think you really want me to."
The small, cramped boardroom paused. It’s is a public space, but it’s a tough one to photograph.
"A reporter would have to get up and circle the room a little bit and get the photos of the fair board directors that they need," Titus said in an interview from her Newspaper’s office.
"How many pictures do you need?" board president Tim Renner said next… followed by some laughs by Director Jeff Farley.
"Just asking the question," Titus continued.
And just like that Caroline Titus the journalist, and Caroline Titus wife of the ousted fair board manager, has become part of the story and controversy surrounding the fair board and its’ transparency with media and the public.
"As a journalist you're taught that you never want to become the story. It makes me very uncomfortable that I have somewhat become the story for a week regarding some of the turn of events here in Ferndale,” she said. But her story is bringing light to bigger picture issues about the Brown Act, the law that gives freedom of the press at public meetings in California. After getting rid of the general manager, Titus’ husband, the fair board is feeling the effects of the law.
“They never took it upon themselves to receive Brown Act training to understand exactly what their roles and responsibilities are as public officials."
Back in the boardroom, “I think it’s very rude to be taking pictures of everyone when you're trying to concentrate,” Berti continued. Titus says she was amazed that day to be verbally accosted by a public official for just doing her job. She says despite the incident, the flashes of her camera will still bring light to public meetings.
"I think that the fair board is under intense scrutiny right now and I understand how uncomfortable it is for them, there’s a grand jury investigation,” she remarked.
“And so that was a perfect example I think of the fact that many times our jobs as journalists can be uncomfortable, can make people uncomfortable, but I think as long as people are reasonable and understand the law this situation would not happen that happened."
"Caroline..." said board president Renner,
"Yeah?" replied Titus…
"Could you please sit down?"
She paused before standing her ground… "I'm sorry is there a place for press at Humboldt County Fair Board meetings?"
At that February meeting it was discussed that the board should put on their agenda an item to talk about where press will be allowed at meetings of the Humboldt County Fair.
Titus says as a member of the California Newspaper Publishers Association she’s had contact with a lawyer on the subject, who advised her to make sure local police are aware of the law as it applies to journalists in case it happens again.