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Our Views: Blowing the whistle on ourselves

Flowery Branch email leak came from The Times

POSTED: July 24, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Newspapers and their readers have a special relationship built upon a foundation of credibility and integrity established over a long period of time. On occasion, in order to strengthen that relationship, readers need to be made aware of developments at the newspaper that deserve consideration in evaluating our objectivity in covering and reporting the news.

Such is the case in a series of events related to coverage of stories in Flowery Branch, in which the newspaper has found itself in the uncomfortable position of being part of the story rather than just an objective third-party observer.

Some background is necessary.

Back in the spring, Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz tried to convince the Flowery Branch City Council that the city should make a bid to become responsible for operating a county-owned sewage treatment facility in South Hall. As a former member of the council, Lutz tried to leverage his support and political alliances to get the city involved in the sewer operation. His efforts failed, the city declined and the county ultimately awarded the contract to the company that had been operating the plant.

During the course of those discussions, an open records request was filed with the city asking for communications related to the sewer plant. The city attorney identified the person making the request as Lutz.

In responding to the open records request, one council member, Tara Richards, failed to include in the documentation three emails she had sent to Jeff Gill, a reporter at The Times. After her failure to include those emails became public knowledge, Richards was censured by the city council.

Richards admitted her mistake, but the question that arose was a perplexing one: How did others become aware of the emails she had sent?

Of the three emails provided to The Times by Richards, two had been circulated and copied to other people and as such were not confidential. One was a copy of an email that had been sent to several people by Lutz himself; the other included a chain of emails between Flowery Branch officials discussing the issue.

But the third email included personal comments from Richards to Gill specifically about Lutz and his effort to coerce the city into bidding on the plant. She questioned whether it was ethical for the commissioner to ask the city to become involved since the county already had initiated the process to have private companies bid on the project. She also questioned why, if a private company wasn't the answer, the county wouldn't operate the plant on its own rather than having the city involved as a middle man.

Those comments were not copied to others. They were written by Richards and emailed only to Gill as part of the discussion on the issue. And yet when the city council voted to censure Richards, that email was presented as evidence for doing so. What the councilwoman thought was a private and confidential communication had suddenly become public.

So how did those who voted to censure Richards learn of the communications with The Times?

Sadly, the source for that was The Times, though not Gill, who throughout the process maintained the highest standards of journalistic integrity.

A search of email records last week brought to light the fact that the person responsible was a former member of our staff, reporter Carolyn Crist, who left The Times in May for a job outside the newspaper industry. Crist had been provided copies of the emails so that she could help with stories related to the issue while Gill was on vacation. She also reported on the sewer plant as part of her responsibilities in covering the county government beat.

At the end of May, on the last day of her employment, Crist forwarded to Lutz the emails that had been sent to The Times by Richards. Less than a month later, Flowery Branch council member Chris Fetterman, a political ally of Lutz's, presented them as evidence when making the motion to censure his fellow council member. It's not hard to draw the line from Lutz to Fetterman.

Crist said she had been promised by Lutz that he wanted the emails only for his own information and would not use them in any fashion.

Whether it was an act of youthful naivete or a calculated maneuver by an exiting employee meant to embarrass The Times, Crist's actions were a violation of the most basic code of journalism. Without exception, reporters are expected to maintain the confidences of those who provide them with information. Failing to do so puts at risk those who serve as sources for the dozens of stories we write each week on issues of importance to our readers.

Regardless of her rationale, Crist's actions would constitute a cause for termination at most newspapers, including The Times. Had she not already left our employment, she would have been fired, as would any of our reporters who did something similar.

The significance of this chain of events may be lost on many of our readers. Certainly compared to other newspaper scandals — illegal monitoring of telephone calls, fabrication of stories, etc. — that have plagued the industry in recent years, it is minor in nature. But it is one we felt important enough to share with those who depend on The Times for credible and objective reporting.

If nothing else, clearing the air as to the source of the documents will allow conspiracy theories on their origin to be put to rest in Flowery Branch.

There are many issues here worthy of debate and discussion, such as why a county commissioner worked so hard to push a city council into bidding on the operation of a county sewer plant.

Lutz's actions are particularly hard to interpret. On the sewer plant, he wanted government management rather than a private company. But on other county services, such as landfill operation, he prefers privatization to government operation. Perhaps the driving factor in his positioning has more to do with who is rewarded by the decision made rather than efficiency in operation, but that is a topic for another day.

Certainly the failure of any elected official to fully comply with the law in regard to the release of public records is always a concern, though we do understand that Richards mistakenly felt the emails in question were a private communication rather than a public document. She has admitted her mistake in a forthright and honorable fashion and remains poised to serve the city well.

But we cannot in these spaces criticize the actions of others if we are not willing to admit our own culpability when mistakes are made. By releasing to Lutz information that had been provided to us in confidence, and by so doing adding fuel to the fires of controversy in Flowery Branch, we violated one of the most basic rules of journalism.

For that we can only apologize to those impacted by our actions, and promise to our readers, and our sources, that we will strive to do better in the future.



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