Town Meeting and the Media: Making the Most of Your News Coverage

By AnnMarie French

Town meeting season is upon us, and the ever-present question is: Will turnout be better this year? With fewer and fewer people attending town meeting these days, important decisions rest in the hands of a small group of individuals. In SB 2 towns, voters can skip the first session where issues are debated and discussed—and amended, and come to the polls to cast their vote on issues that they may have little or no prior knowledge about.

The challenge is to engage the public in the issues early on and inspire them to participate in making informed decisions for their community. The media play a vital role in serving as the connective point between local officials and the community, and can actually help to educate the voters regarding the complexity of the issues.

For officials, getting the correct message out through the media can be frustrating when they have no control of the content. To make communicating the issues an even greater challenge, coverage of town meeting is often relegated to the “rookie"—the newest reporter to the paper. Officials often find themselves answering the same questions year after year, meeting after meeting. Will they ever get it right?

Town Meeting 101 for Reporters
Local officials and newspaper editors will agree on one point: Reporters need educating when it comes to the intricacies of town meeting. In effort to do just that, New Hampshire Local Government Center (LGC) participated in a town meeting training for reporters in late-January, hosted by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors and held at the Concord Monitor. As part of the workshop, LGC Legal Services Counsel Susan Slack presented an overview of the town meeting and municipal budget process to a packed room of both new and seasoned reporters, and judging from the many questions, the group was paying very close attention.

In part two of the training session, editors from Concord Monitor, Foster’s and Neighborhood News imparted their advice on new reporters. Editors view town meeting season as a time to connect with the community, and find that it offers an endless list of story ideas to follow during the year ahead. In some respects, town meeting season can serve as a fresh start for your relationship with local media.

Regardless of your feelings about the media, you need them to understand the issues in order to achieve a greater goal: to help the public to understand the issues. The following outlines a few simple ways that you can work with reporters to achieve the greatest benefit from your local news coverage.

Establish Contact
The very first thing editors instructed reporters to do when arriving at a public meeting is to make a contact—to find a friendly face in the crowd who can help them to learn the names and the issues most pressing for the community. Right as they come through the door, you have a chance to make first positive contact, and start building a good working relationship. Don’t leave them to search for someone to answer their questions. Consider the unfortunate possibility that this new reporter might sit next to the most antagonistic individual in the room, the one who never has a single good thing to say about local government. The facts may take on a decidedly different hue before too long. Use this early opportunity to help the reporter understand the issues at hand and why they are so important to the health of the community. Link them with a good community spokesperson who can guide them in a direction that will present the true facts and their impact.

Never let a reporter leave the meeting without verifying that they have the details right, especially for important or potentially controversial topics. Combine confusion with a tight deadline, and there is a recipe for mixed messages and inaccurate articles. You’ve watched them jotting notes all evening—did they get it right? Follow up with the reporter to make sure they have the correct information and fully understand the issues. They just might thank you for it.

So, Where’s the Story?
Finding the real story behind the news is what inspires reporters. The items on the warrant are of course very important to the officials working so hard to see them through, and all are worthy of vast amounts of space in the paper. But the reporter’s job is more than just to list a series of events and statistics. This would make for some very dry reading, and no one would buy the paper.

Reporters look for the human-interest story—the hook—that will capture the reader’s attention and help to explain the issues. You have an opportunity to help put a face on the story by guiding the reporter to someone who can illustrate the issue at hand in a way that achieves your goal. For example, an item on the warrant proposes to raise and appropriate (x) million dollars to build a new town hall. The voters may balk at that sum of money but you may want to convince them of why the new building is needed. Guide the reporter to the town clerk, who can show them the boxes of birth and marriage certificates piling up in the leaky basement, in danger of being destroyed. Chances are good that, along with the written story, readers will see a photo of the clerk holding historic records in front of a bucket catching water, illustrating to readers why a “yes" vote will save their historic family records. While this case may be dramatic, the point is clear: putting a face on the issue will help you communicate the valid need—to the reporter as well as to the reader.

Everyone knows it and there are studies to prove it: increased controversy gets more people to turn out for town meeting. It also leads to increased coverage in the paper. While stirring up controversy may not be wise as a general rule, creating a little “buzz" around issues could have the desired effect as well. This could be as simple as highlighting opposite sides of an issue, but be sure you have someone who can clearly articulate the case that you want to drive home. Controversy inspires people to take a stand and vote, and it also sells papers. With the right twist, it’s a win for both of you.

Free Press: Forum for Opinions
Creating an informed public is a challenge when you can’t explain specifically why a yes or no vote is so important, and what the consequences will be either way. While voter pamphlets explaining the process and the warrant items have become more common, restrictions on use of taxpayer funds prohibit their use to express opinions. You cannot tell the voter why a yes or no vote is so important in materials paid for by town funds, you can only convey purely factual information.

This is where the media can help. The media can create a forum for constructive dialogue in a series of articles, weighing both sides of the issue to help the reader gain a better understanding of the topic. If you can successfully sway the media as to which vote is in the best interest of the community, they can communicate it however they wish. In this way, they serve to engage the public in the issues at hand, and—hopefully—inspire them to participate in the process.

Foster Good Relationships
It is critical to establish and maintain effective working relationships with your local media. While talking to the media may not be your favorite task, accept that it comes with the territory, and focus on the benefits that can be achieved. The temptation to brush off questions after a long meeting creates the risk that the final story may be incomplete—or worse, incorrect. If you don’t have the time, suggest discussing the issue further by phone the next morning. Or, refer them to someone else who has the time to talk with them.

The most common complaint voiced by reporters at the training session was the frequency at which calls were not returned. By simply making yourself available to answer questions, and returning calls before deadline, you will have a great start toward building a good relationship. Deadlines are unmovable forces for reporters. It is helpful to be aware of deadlines, especially if you need to prevent inaccurate information from printing. Faced with a question you are uncertain how best to answer, don’t be afraid to say you need to obtain more information. It’s perfectly acceptable to call back if you need time to verify facts, but be sure that you do call back.

The First Amendment establishes the place of the free press in our democracy. While it may take time, fostering strong relationships with your local media will bring positive outcomes down the road. Understanding where the goals of local officials and reporters overlap can help you to work together more effectively, during town meeting season and throughout the year.

AnnMarie French is a Communications Specialist with LGC’s Communications Department.

Legal Obligations Under the Right to Know Law

It is important to understand your legal obligations under the Right to Know Law when working with the media.

Part I, Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution reads:

All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all time accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.

Section 1 of RSA 91-A (the Right to Know Law) reflects this purpose when it reads:

Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.

Public Meetings
Anyone, not just local residents, can attend any public meeting. This includes reporters. They may take notes, tape record, take photos and videotape. However, “open to the public" does not mean that the Right to Know Law grants anyone the right to speak at the meeting. Nobody has a right to disrupt a meeting or to speak without being invited. The chair is in control of who speaks and when. RSA 91-A only assures a right to attend, not a right to participate. See State v. Dominic, 117 N.H. 573 (1977).

Public Records
Any information concerning the business of a town or city, in any format, is a public record and must be made available to the public unless there is a specific statutory exemption. The new RSA 33-A:3-a, which became effective August 29, 2005, governs the length of time certain municipal records must be retained and includes a detailed retention schedule.

RSA 91-A:4 governs the public inspection of public records. While the statute provides more detailed information than is provided here, the following are a few key points:

Availability: Records must be available for inspection and copying during the regular business hours of the public body or agency, unless a record is temporarily unavailable because it is actually being used. See Gallagher v. Town of Windham, 121 N.H. 156 (1981). The state Supreme Court has held that when the office receiving the request for a record is busy, officials may ask the citizen to make an appointment to review the records. RSA 91-A:4, IV requires that when a public body or agency is not able to make a public record available for immediate inspection, it must do so within five business days, or deny the request with written reasons, or acknowledge the request with a statement of the time necessary to determine whether the request will be granted or denied. See also Brent v. Paquette, 132 N.H. 415 (1989) (the maximum time anyone can be required to wait is five days).

Copies: Any citizen may make notes, tapes, photos, or photocopies of a public record. The law does not provide a right to receive copies of records at the municipality’s expense. See Gallagher, above. Government officials should not hand over the records for copying. See RSA 41:61, which prohibits the person with custody of the records from loaning them out, and RSA 91-A:4, III. The governmental agency or official is permitted by RSA 91-A:4, IV to make copies and charge the person requesting them the “actual cost" of copying. Several lower court cases have held that municipalities can include in the actual cost computation an amount for staff time needed to make the copies, as well as the actual mechanical costs of copying; however, there is considerable disagreement among lawyers as to whether this is authorized under the law.

Motive: The motives of the person requesting the information are irrelevant and should not be questioned. Union Leader Corp. v. City of Nashua, 141 N.H. 473 (1996).

The Right to Know Law also addresses the following topics related to inspection of public records: form, raw materials, working documents, format and settlement agreements, and documents that are exempt from public disclosure. For a thorough review of the Right to Know Law, refer to LGC’s publication, Knowing the Territory; the updated 2006 edition will be available in April 2006.