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Richmond County Government is Fearful of Real Journalism and the Truth it Uncovers

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In nearly one year in publication, members of The Augusta Press staff have learned a few lessons. Chief among those is that many in local government look on the news media as the enemy. Well, we didn’t exactly learn that lesson so much as be reminded of it. 

Fear probably explains the disdain some, but not all, government leaders hold for the media. Over the past 10.5 months, the majority of Richmond and Columbia county elected officials and law enforcement agencies treated us with respect, transparency and openness. The ones who have refused to operate with transparency seem to do so because they are afraid of the media and the truths that good journalism can unearth.

In Richmond County, some government employees and officials are fearful of talking to the press, and they avoid cooperating at all costs. They are fearful not because they lack the desire for transparency but because they fear being fired from their jobs or losing the next election.

Our local government has gotten a pass for many years as good journalism has dwindled in the area. Free to operate without impunity, government was wasteful and unaccountable to its citizens.  Now that local journalists are demanding accountability and shining a light on problems, it is no surprise that leaders are bucking – and instructing their staffs to do the same. For example, Richmond County hired a public information officer to deal with questions and demands for accountability. The person in that position has provided information when doing so benefitted the county government, but when release of information would benefit the public – the citizens of Richmond County – she has done much to stall the flow of information. 

The first major issue to arise since we began publication involved the selection of the Augusta fire chief. We, along with other local media, filed a Georgia Open Records Act request for information about the candidates for the position, and we were flat-out ignored. It took a court case and thousands of dollars to get the Augusta government simply to obey the law. Without good local journalism, Chief Burden’s lack of qualifications for the position would have remained secret. So would the unorthodox method City Administrator Odie Donald used to get Burden included in the list of finalists.

When the city figured out that local newspapers and television stations had no problem dragging its government officials before a judge, the political establishment simply changed tactics. Instead of flaunting the law, they now use it to their advantage.

Since January, The Augusta Press alone has spent well in excess of $10,000 on obtaining public documents. Likely, other Augusta media have spent similar amounts when they joined in quests for documents that are supposed to be created on behalf of and to serve the residents of Augusta.

The Georgia Open Records Act allows the government to charge a reasonable fee to fulfill open records requests. The law predates the widespread use of the internet. Prior to the advent of electronic record keeping, a city employee would have to rummage through file cabinets, make necessary redactions, run off physical copies and mail the requests.

All that has changed. An employee only needs to access a file on a work computer, attach it to an email and press the send button. Redaction, that is, removing some types of personal or other sensitive information, will still, of course, require a human touch.

More recently, The Augusta Press requested to review the budget proposals from city departments for fiscal year 2022. That request was met with a demand for $2,500 and a proposed seven-week time frame for the preparation and redaction of the documents. What information needs redacted on a budget request?

All of the requested budget information is located in a computer file in the City Administrator’s office – probably specifically on his computer. There is no need to redact information, except, perhaps, with regard to private medical information for an individual, but that seems an unlikely line item in a budget request.

The Richmond County Sheriff, Richard Roundtree, is the most blatant in his disgust of The Augusta Press and its mission. Almost from the day of our launch, Roundtree made it clear that he would not add us to his press release/conference distribution list or meet or speak with any of our staff. 

Despite the fact that the staff of The Augusta Press helped Richmond County investigators identify a serial killer operating in Richmond County, Roundtree has made it clear in writing that he will not cooperate with our news organization at all. His reason? He didn’t like a person who wrote a few columns in the early days of the paper.

Now, Roundtree holds an annual summit with his favored media organizations and The Augusta Press was informed by letter that our representatives are not invited to attend. Our complaint about not being included is not sour grapes. Our complaint grows out of our mission as journalists to serve the public’s information needs.

While Columbia County is much more transparent and officials there have never resorted to the level of shenanigans Richmond County officials have, they, too, are clever at keeping information close to the vest.

For example, Columbia County commissioners earlier this month traveled to Athens to discuss county business. They went to Athens to avoid “distractions,” according to their spokesperson. While the commission staff provided the media the proper notifications about the meeting, it is alarming that commissioners feel the need to drive so far away to hold a meeting. That certainly is one way to avoid public scrutiny, even if that was not their objective.  Public scrutiny keeps government accountable. They should welcome the “distractions” and input from citizens.

As The Augusta Press publisher, I feel compelled to put the local political establishments on notice that The Augusta Press is not some idea that was conceived overnight. It took almost a year to put together this news organization, and now that we have been publishing for almost a year, we have grown immensely. 

City administrators come and go in Augusta on a regular basis. County commissioners and school board members come and go also.  And thank goodness mayors are not kings, and they also come and go. The Augusta Press is not going anywhere. We are filling a niche in local journalism, and we will be here long after Sheriff Roundtree, Mayor Davis and Odie Donald are gone. Further, If the public’s First Amendment rights continue to be violated, our response, our obligation and our responsibility, will be to litigate.

To our loyal readers, I want to say thank you for your support. The reason you do not have to navigate around endless ads, get fooled with click bait or have to skip over the latest controversy involving Prince Harry to find out what is happening in our community is because you subscribe and pay good money to get your local news. That’s what we promised to provide for you, and we intend to keep that promise.

Please continue to tell your friends about The Augusta Press and share our stories on social media. As our subscriber list grows, our content will grow, and we will continue to bring you the truth despite the obstacles placed in front of us by the political establishment.

Joe Edge is the Publisher for The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected].

26 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the great work. Journalism watchdogs are rarely appreciated by those who perceive themselves as all-powerful. But citizens do appreciate your work. And I spread the word regularly about the great work you all do.

  2. This country’s socialists are learning to use the best of a bad situation, that bad situation being an active & involved press.
    Learning from the useful, favorable reporting of the much envied accomplishments of likeminded socialist leaders like Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
    As reported in his providing living wages, universal medical insurance , and wiping out all food insecurity for all his citizens .
    When in reality those who were not fleeing the country by any means possible or starving to death were & are surviving on garbage .

  3. Joe, I couldn’t agree with this piece more. Balance, transparent journalism is what we need more than ever-at every level of reporting. We need to have journalists and citizens ask the hard questions of our civic leaders. I have seen this side stepping first hand. The Mayor’s office, Commissioners, BoE, and yes the Sheriff/DA office are good at this two-stepping shuffle. Ask for the meat around the ARP monies thaqt both the County and BoE is getting- how will it be used to truly benefit the county citizens or improve the education of our failing schools and you can hear them strike upthe band to side step the questions. Keep up your work I recommend this every chance I can.

  4. When someone says New York Times or Washington Post my brain hears Pravda and Izvestia. Our schools are graduating people who are so ignorant of world history. politics, and economics that they admire butchers like Stalin and Mao.

  5. Might be time to approach legislators about updating the Georgia sunshine laws..also? Any politician that will not include a legitimate news service (and in my opinion the Augusta Press is the most legitimate one in this area) should be sued. A public official should not be able to pick and choose..that’s what that whole “free press” thing means..Augusta is a pathetic joke of corruption, good old boy and nepotism. The fact that any attempt to get them to point the light at themselves to right the wrongs is met with resistance..that, to me, smacks of elitism and skeletons they want to keep hidden..

  6. If any department in government fails to provide “public” documents in a timely manner, then its department head should have to stand in front of a judge, immediately. Mr. Edge, please continue to hold our government accountable. Also, take a look at the Augusta Chronicle (USA Today) and see if you can locate any reader comments. I’ve posted a few, but I guess they disappeared down some black hole.

  7. Wait, WHAT??

    Forgive me for glossing over the spirit of the opinion to dial into a concerning line. “Despite the fact that the staff of The Augusta Press helped Richmond County investigators identify a serial killer operating in Richmond County…” The Augusta Press has only been in operation for about 11 months; what serial killer have we missed in that short time?

    • @Sarah Scott – I was wondering the same thing! At first I thought that was a reference to Reinaldo Rivera, but his killings took place 1999-2000, and he lived in N. Augusta, SC, not Richmond County, GA.
      @Mr. Edge – What serial killer are you referencing? Also, keep up the good journalism! 🙂

      • The Burke County Sheriff has mentioned a murderer as a ‘serial killer’ this year. But again, wrong county. Not only do I question that we have had a serial killer, I question if The Augusta Press was instrumental in solving the crime. I’d love more clarity on this.

  8. Thanks for your attempts to hold our government officials accountable for their actions. We need more of this, not less. It looks to me like it is going to take legal action to force some of this nonsense to come to an end. I for one am willing to pay more for my subscription to TAP if that is what it takes to hold some feet to the fire. Keep up the good work!!

  9. Please continue with your investigative reporting. Otherwise taxpayers would know nothing about the lack of transparency. I’m surprised with Sheriff Roundtree’s attitude towards the press. I’ve always thought he was upstanding .

  10. It is refreshing to go to my ipad each morning and read what is going on here in OUR area…..as I can get the rest off the TV. We appreciate your digging deep….our local governments need to be held accountable.

  11. Augusta was in desperate need for TAP. I too spread the word as often as I can. Any time I visit a shop or venue that I’ve read about here. I make a special point to tell them, how I found them.
    We actually have two subscriptions at our house. One for me and one for my husband. I read TAP for all of the reasons everyone has mentioned. I also appreciate the observations of my fellow readers! Thank you.

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