The Times this week filed a lawsuit against the city of Gainesville for its failure to adhere to the state's open records laws.
We did so with great reluctance after weeks of careful consideration of the issues, and not until we had repeatedly asked city officials to reconsider what we believe to be an indefensible legal position that they have taken upon advice of their attorneys.
Unlike some court cases, the facts in this one are easily stated. Months ago the city received an anonymous letter alleging inappropriate behavior by former city manager Bryan Shuler. That letter said that Shuler had sexually harassed city employees, and named two employees who supposedly were victims of the harassment. Shuler went on to resign as a result of the allegations.
It is the belief of The Times that the names of those employees mentioned in the anonymous letter, plus a third person not connected with the harassment charges, are a matter of public record. The letter, after all, was received by an employee of the city during the course of her duties; it addresses issues involved in the governance of the city; and it played a significant role in the resignation of a top city official.
Gainesville officials apparently take the position that the names of employees contained in the letter of misconduct are not subject to the state's open records laws. We say "apparently" because it is difficult to understand exactly what legal position the city is taking. At first city attorneys said it was against the law to release the names, but then later they said they would provide the names to The Times if we would make certain promises to the city about how they would be used.
To city officials, making the names public was OK as long as the city could control the newspaper's use of the information. We said no thanks. As novel as it may seem, we still believe newspapers have an obligation to report the facts and serve the public without having elected officials dictate to us the manner in which we do business. There are forms of government that allow public officials control over the press; thanks to the First Amendment of the Constitution, ours isn't one of them.
There are those who would argue that the Shuler incident is ancient history and the newspaper should move on to other issues of interest. But the truth is, without knowing the names of those mentioned in the letter to the city, we can't determine that there has been any closure at all to this bit of city political intrigue.
Were the employees mentioned in the letter given promotions or special treatment to stay quiet? Were they unfairly terminated from their jobs? Are workplace lawsuits pending? Did they resign when Shuler resigned, with special "severance" packages for doing so?
We don't know the answers to any of those questions, because the city refuses to release what should clearly be public information. And if we don't know, our readers don't know. The residents of Gainesville don't know. The taxpayers who support city government don't know. The voters who will be asked to make future decisions about city council seats don't know.
The truth is, you don't know because the members of the city council don't think you have a right to know all of the facts about one of the most significant issues faced by the city government in years.
We fully understand that these are hard economic times, and it is difficult to incur the expenses involved in such litigation. We also know that the principle involved is worth the court cost.
In the weeks and months since Shuler's resignation, The Times has made every effort to avoid having to take legal action against the city. We have repeatedly talked to city officials and legal advisers, explaining the basic issues involved in hiding city business from the public.
Our efforts have been to no avail. We have repeatedly been snubbed in every attempt to sway the city's legal position, though we honestly can't pretend to understand what that position is.
At every step along the way we have made it clear that we would go to court if a resolution could not be reached. Ultimately we had to do so, out of fear the city, had it been successful in stonewalling our attempts to gain access to this public document, would do the same thing again in the future. We did not feel we could allow that to happen.
We have no desire to deal in gossip, innuendo or sleazy tabloid scandal. Even if we have the names from the letter presented to the city, we may never find cause to print them. We may well find there is nothing newsworthy to be gleaned from further reporting and investigation of the anonymous complaint. Dealing with anonymous allegations on a regular basis ourselves, we know they often are without merit - but you can't determine that to be the case until you know the facts.
These, we believe, are the pertinent facts: The city has a document that should be a public record. Anyone who wants to review that document should be able to do so. Georgia law says that is the case, and there are overriding reasons why that law is important.
It is regrettable that the case now is in the courts for legal interpretation and review, but we cannot sit idly by while city leaders ignore the law and condescendingly adopt an air of benevolent dictatorship in deciding what facts about city government the public has a need to know.