“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Transparency in government – it’s a fundamental American value. Open government supports the First Amendment and ensures that freedom of speech and of the press is protected.
Why should the press be protected? We are the watchdogs of government. Even a small community newspaper like the Coastal Courier has a huge responsibility – to be a check and balance on the doings of local elected officials and those they appoint to serve the public.
Dictatorships have no checks and balances. These iron clad governments are, obviously, closed to their citizens. They maintain control by keeping their people in the dark. Here in America, we are permitted, for the most part, to chart our own destinies. We are permitted to question, to request information and even to criticize. So, when our local government officials try to take even the slightest step back into the shadows, we are obligated to firmly grasp them by the wrist and yank them back into the bright sunshine.
Such has been the case recently, with the City of Hinesville’s refusal to allow the Courier access to executive minutes and transcripts of a special called meeting held Oct. 22, which addressed an arrest warrant issued to Hinesville City Manager Kenneth Howard.
Howard was one of seven people charged, on Oct. 19, with misdemeanors of pandering and solicitation of sodomy over incidents that occurred during the 2017-18 academic year at Fort Valley State University, according to District Attorney K. David Cooke, Jr., with the Macon Judicial Circuit.
Howard is innocent until proven guilty – that, too, is a fundamental American right.
However, the way city council has handled the situation involving the Hinesville City Manager has raised some red flags with the Courier news room. Not only is the Courier alleging that the city did not properly notify the legal organ 24 hours in advance of the special called meeting, we suspect council may have decided prior to that called meeting that they would continue to support Howard by not placing him on administrative leave nor by taking any other disciplinary action against the city manager.
The closed session on Oct. 22 was brief, no more than 15 minutes, and once council reconvened, Mayor Allen Brown immediately read a prepared statement announcing Howard would continue his duties as city manager. Indeed, council has continued to function as though nothing out of the ordinary has occurred.
As numerous readers pointed out in our Sound Off feature, council’s decision to completely ignore the allegations against Howard are in stark contrast to council members’ decision to suspend the city’s former manager, Billy Edwards, last year. No reason was ever offered for that suspension.
The Courier had reported there was tension between Edwards and Council Member Diana Reid, who accused Edwards of insubordination in July 2017. Edwards resigned voluntarily after more than 30 years on the job, following a severance agreement reached in August 2017. The agreement stated Edwards “was not terminated for cause.”
The city maintains it complied with Georgia’s Open Meetings Law by “conspicuously” posting a notice to the exterior door of city hall on Oct. 21, stating a special called meeting would be held Oct. 22.
First of all, this notice was not dated. Secondly, it was placed there on a Sunday morning – when most businesses are closed (including the Courier) and downtown is, for the most part, deserted.
In our opinion, the city did not make a reasonable effort to notify the public about this meeting. We think council is not interested in the truth; they just want to bury it and shield themselves, and Howard, from the embarrassment caused by the Fort Valley State University sex scandal.
We believe that the Hinesville City Council prefers not to question its lead employee or investigate the facts in this case, and they prefer that we don’t, either.