Saturday, March 19, 2016

U.S. Virgin Islands leaders get SPJ's Black Hole Award; Wis. lawmakers, Tenn. sheriff runners-up

The Society of Professional Journalists has named the elected leaders of the Virgin Islands of the United States the recipients of its annual Black Hole Award for their "bald and breathtaking contempt of the public’s right to know."
Jonathan Austin

Jonathan Austin of the Virgin Islands Daily News nominated the government, including Gov. Kenneth Mapp and the Legislature, saying their “lack of transparency has caused an uproar in the territory.” (As publisher and editor of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C., Austin and his wife Susan won the 2012 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the publisher of The Rural Blog.)

The newspaper says the territorial legislature won't disclose how much some senators spent at a legislative conference in Seattle, and Mapp has refused to comply with the territory’s open-records law, claimed the right to alter records before release, and "retaliated against a subordinate after that person released documents showing Mapp spent excessively on travel, groceries and alcohol using a government-issued credit card," SPJ says in a news release. The Daily News played its story on the award modestly, on Page 8. To read it, click here. For examples of the paper's reporting on open-government issues, click here.

The runners-up for the Black Hole Award were:
  • The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which received the award in 2012. This time, it "voted along party lines to effectively gut the state’s open-records law," SPJ says. "Pressure from the media and public prompted officials to drop the measure, according to Mark Pitsch, president of SPJ’s Madison pro chapter, who submitted the nomination and said Wisconsin citizens "rose up against the changes in an almost unprecedented outpouring of opposition."
  • The Sheriff’s Office in Marshall County, Tennessee, nominated by Prison Legal News, which "had trouble obtaining records about the county jail's contract for phone service," SPJ says. The sheriff at the time, Norman Dalton, demanded that the paper make the request in person, contrary to state law. Told that, Dalton started ignoring the requests, so Prison Legal News got a court order releasing the contract and won reimbursement of its attorney's fees.
Other finalists for the award were the Community Services District of Cambria, Calif.; the Colorado Judicial Branch; Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback; Los Angeles City Hall; the New York State Police; the Trans Pacific Partnership; the Wyoming Legislature and the New York State Thruway Authority.

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