Unlike social media, newspapers print only what they know to be true. We don’t publish rumors. And we need help to do that job.
Recent events have made clear exactly how important full, open access to government records is. After many years of printing the “police beat” in the newspaper we started having doubts that we were doing the right thing. Weekly we received phone calls from readers asking why so-and-so was not in the police beat. We began to question if we were receiving the full and complete report from our local police department. Also, many of the citizens that appeared in the weekly report eventually had their charges dropped. Was it right for us to print the names of people whose charges were dismissed at a later date? After a name is in the newspaper it becomes a permanent document. We take that very seriously.
At first, we tried to figure out why we were not receiving the full report. As you recall that fell on deaf ears. “That is just the way things work,” is what we were told by the chief of police. We wrestled with this for a few weeks. We finally decided, after much debate, we were willing to change. If we couldn’t provide a full police report for police beat maybe we could do it better a different way.
Moving forward we would print the court report. It seemed less biased. We would cover the courts and print the case facts as they progressed in the court system. It seemed like a fair and honest way to report the news. We feel the court report also provides a more accurate picture of local criminal activity for our readers.
But the journey didn’t end there. After learning of Sgt. Alex Roselles’s crash in June the Sidney Herald requested his internal investigation report. That is what we do. We can’t print the rumors or gossip found on social media. We have to find out the truth behind the incident to inform the public and report the news. It’s our job.
As most of our readers know, it has been one roadblock after another and excuse after excuse in our journey to obtain the records. This is not a vendetta against Roselles or the Sidney Police Department. We are just doing our job. After months of meetings, closed sessions and attorneys, we are still waiting.
Lastly, on Aug. 16, we received a letter to the editor, also printed in this edition, from county attorney Janet Christoffersen. Christoffersen had read the second editorial by the Sidney Herald on policing the police and was not happy. Christoffersen was attempting to use her authority to block the Sidney Herald from receiving the internal investigation records.
She claims it will obstruct her case against Roselles. In her letter, she says a rule against self-incrimination referred to as the Garrity warning is the reason for not releasing the file. The Garrity interview was never specifically requested by the Sidney Herald. Long before Christoffersen was involved in the case, we asked for the personnel file. While Garrity interviews are subject to public records requests they do provide protection against the use of compelled statements in a prosecution. The Sidney Herald would not request such a record until prosecution was complete.
Roselles refused to answer any questions and was missing for several days following the incident. It is our job to find the truth in what happened. Taxpayers have a right to know the truth about a public figure holding a government position. That is what we are trying to provide.
As for the personal attack on staff at the Sidney Herald in Christoffersen’s letter to the editor — this isn’t an editor vs. the county attorney issue. This is a Montana Public Records Act issue. Her statements are simply childish and we feel no need to rebuke them.
Lastly, there are some misconceptions about the Sidney Herald. We receive no government funding. We are not a public utility. Like any private business we have the right to run our business and our Facebook page as we see fit.
We do so with every ounce of integrity we have. We know that the public relies on us to be honest and fair. Frankly, it’s how we stay in business. It’s our integrity that readers and advertisers alike depend on.
We will keep doing our job to the best of our ability. Providing accurate reporting to Sidney and Richland County requires the Sidney Herald to request documents from our government agencies. We will continue to do so.