How Far Do We Have To Go To Get "Public Information"?

In Wirt County, it was more than 20 miles.

Earlier this year, I had to track down information on a tip we received from an individual, that the police chief of Caldwell, Ohio, had been arrested for driving under the influence.

It took a while, but I was able to get most of that information over the telephone...from the Ohio Highway Patrol in Cambridge, Ohio, and, eventually, from the town's mayor, Lowell Anderson.  (I publicly would like to thank both for their cooperation, particularly Mayor Anderson, who I dealt with years ago when he was the Superintendent of Schools in that community.)

Contrast that with what we/I had to go through to follow up on a tip that the Assessor of Wirt County, Debbie Hennen, had been charged with what turned out to be a misdemeanor, albeit possibly as part of a larger investigation.

Shortly after 3 P.M. Monday, a caller told us Hennen had been "arrested". We never confirmed the arrest, but we started making phone calls.  One was to the Wirt County Magistrate Court, to find out whether she had appeared in court.

A male voice told us...and I may be a bit sensitive, but I believe it was in a condescending manner...that we were welcome to come there and report on whatever was happening there.  That was all he would tell us.  He didn't say there was actually anything to cover. Oh, and, by the way, the court office closes at 4:00.

I realize Wirt County, even in the best of times, operates under a tight budget. But we in the local news media aren't exactly freely spending money these days, either. What this individual (I admit I don't know, but he may have been the magistrate himself) is telling us to do is, if we want the information, we have to drive 20-plus miles...a more than 40-mile round Elizabeth for it.

Which I did.  And, considering the traffic at that hour just between Parkersburg and Mineral Wells, making it there by 4:00 would have taken a miracle.  I arrived at 4:10 by my watch, and was told that since I hadn't arrived by four, the information (a complaint outlining what Ms. Hennen was charged with) would not be available until the morning.  I was also told that the local newspaper (conveniently located across the street from the Wirt County Courthouse) had obtained the same information from the magistrate before closing hours.

Ironically, we did confirm that Ms. Hennen had been charged with something, although we weren't told what Monday afternoon, because a State Police Trooper Allison Rhea had tried to contact returned her call.

Since we didn't have the complete details, however, that meant I made a second trip to Elizabeth Tuesday morning (this time within courthouse hours) to get the information from the complaint.  This time, the staff at the magistrate's office (the individual I spoke to Monday wasn't there at the time) couldn't have been nicer.  One, in fact, told me "I don't know why you can't have it, it's public information".

In case you think this is a personal "rant", I know I'm not the only member of the local press to have difficulty obtaining this "public information", because I heard from a reporter from the Parkersburg News and Sentinel about it.  I shared with him my experience, admittedly in a more concise manner.

I'm sure people who read this will dismiss it as just another arrogant, who-does-he-think-he-is reporter using the First Ammendment as his cover. And Wirt County isn't alone in forcing "outside" reporters to go through "hoops" to get simple facts.

But I don't think...and I believe people within the local media agree...that being cooperative with the press...which also means cooperating with the public...doesn't stop at providing information to the newspaper across the street.



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