Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Let the Sunshine In

Montana has strong open meeting and open records laws and a constitutional "right to know," but enforcing them is an endless fight.

It's not just a Montana problem. Reporters in other state are making the fight too.

And then there's federal government, which has become increasingly stingy with information since 9-11.

Stay abreast of these battles. Every reporter who caves in makes it harder for those who follow.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Writing a Council Story

If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know what might be newsworthy before you ever get to City Hall. Be alert, and take lots of notes. Get the best quotes. Get correct spellings. Be thinking of leads as the meeting rolls along.

Generally, two kinds of stories come out of a local government meeting:

1. The council takes action on some controversial proposal.

Missoula dog owners, be warned. The city has raised the penalties for letting Fido roam without a leash.

The City Council voted Monday to ….

2. The council debates some controversial idea or listens to arguments from residents. Action will come later.

Dog owners by the dozens told the City Council Monday that the fines in its proposed new leash law – some as high as $5,000 – are way too harsh.

“I try hard to keep Fido under control, but dogs being dogs, they just get away sometimes,” resident Larry Labradoodle told council members at last night’s hearing on the proposed ordinance. “Cut us some slack, will you?”

The writing gets straight to the point. It doesn’t mess around. It’s conversational and easy to understand. It doesn’t wallow in “governmentese” or bog down in “procedure,'' as in this poor lead:

After listening to canine owners’ complaints for more than three hours, the City Council voted 7-5 Monday night in favor of substitute amendments to the proposed animal control ordinance that emerged earlier in the week from the council’s Public Safety and Health Committee. (That’s nice. So what did they do?)

Or in this awful concoction:

The City Council listened patiently as residents argued for hours Monday about the topic of leash laws.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sniffing for News on the City Beat

Stories are everywhere on the City Beat, once you know what to look for. The City Council’s weekly agenda is good place to start.

The first thing you see are minutes of the most recent council meeting, which can help you figure out the history of some recent controversy. Next, the council will schedule its committee meetings for the week. Makes some notes. Could be that the story you’re interested in is being discussed in one of the committees. At the very least, it tells you when and where you’ll find council members during the week.

The next stop is the consent agenda, containing items for council approval that received unanimous consent from various committees during the week. You might find news here. For example, take a look at Item No. 6 and follow the link.

Public hearings can sometimes be very newsy, especially if what the council is considering has the potential to affect a lot of people in some serious way. If you quote speakers during hearings, make sure you get their names. If you’re really into the beat, you’ll know which public hearings are likely to be controversial Monday. Chances are, council members argued about it earlier that week in a committee. If you can’t make it to the committee meeting, at least read committee minutes before Monday night. You’ll have a leg up on any discussion. If you read Sunday’s Missoulian, you’ll see that city beat reporter Bob Struckman has already written a backgrounder on the issue at stake in Monday night’s second public hearing.

Committee reports can be newsy too. They usually contain recommendations on various ordinances or resolutions. And because they’re not on the consent agenda, it means the committee couldn’t agree entirely on whatever it is they discussed.

Items to be referred are problems that council members or city staffers want the council to discuss. Think of it as “coming attractions.” You’ll get your first look at future controversies here. If you see something interesting here, make a note of which committee it was referred to. You’ll want to cover that meeting for sure.

The agenda also includes lot opportunities for council members, city staffers and the public to sound off on anything. Sometimes its news. Sometimes it might be news to more legwork. Sometimes is hot air.

The bottom line is that the more time you spend with the agenda, and following the links to background information, the better you’ll perform on Monday night.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Virtual Trip to City Hall

The City of Missoula has a pretty good Web site. You'll find links to the city's laws (Municipal Code) and agendas for City Council meetings and meetings of council committees. You'll also find a good FAQ with answers to such burning questions as "How do I find out who's on the council and what ward they represent?" and, an oldie but a goodie, "How do I go about getting copies of records such as minutes, ordinances, resolutions, contracts, etc.?" Heck, you can even get daily police reports on this site.