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Dear Decaturish – Decatur attorney: Legacy Park story misled readers, fell short of standards

Decatur Editor's Pick

Dear Decaturish – Decatur attorney: Legacy Park story misled readers, fell short of standards

City Attorney Bryan Downs File Photo by Mariann Martin
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Decaturish.com stands by its reporting of the story referenced in this letter. The story has been updated with respect to one point raised in this letter. The update is to clarify the circumstances surrounding the exchange between the reporter and the Decatur city attorney. To read the original story, click here.

Dear Decaturish:

The Decatur community depends on your publication to stay informed about local issues.  While your story posted last night — “Decatur city officials say private meetings of Legacy Park board were legal” — reports on an interesting legal and policy issue, I believe it misleads your readers and therefore falls far short of journalistic standards that this community deserves.

You often link full documents — such as briefs, commission resolutions, and the like — to your stories.  I suggest you do that with respect to the lengthy email exchange you have had with City Manager Andrea Arnold and me that you report about in your story.  In that way, your readers who are interested can plumb these exchanges on their own, rather than rely on your editorialized summaries.

For those having less time or interest, I have highlighted below three of the key misrepresentations and inaccuracies in your story.

“… City Manager Andrea Arnold, who serves on the nonprofit’s board as secretary, referred questions from Decaturish to Downs.”

This statement is misleading and inaccurate.  After Ms. Arnold directly answered your questions — but in a manner with which you disagreed — you asked that I weigh in on the issue.

On September 3, a day after receiving your questions about applicability of the Open Meetings Act to the Decatur Legacy Project, Inc., a non-profit corporation, Ms. Arnold directly answered your questions and cited specific provisions of the Act.  Ms. Arnold explained that once the DLP began receiving certain payments under an agreement that would go into effect on October 1, the DLP would be subject to the Open Meetings Act.  After some back and forth emails with you in which you contended that the DLP was already subject to the Open Meetings Act, Ms. Arnold stated that the two of you had a “different interpretation of the state open meetings law” and she indicated she would be glad to discuss the issue with me the following week (I was on a brief family vacation at the time).  You replied on September 4: “Thanks. I would be interested to hear Bryan’s opinion.”  It was in response to your request for my opinion that I provided you yesterday my assessment of the issue.  I did so in my capacity as City Attorney and someone with substantial experience with the Open Meetings Act.

“In an email exchange, Downs pushed back hard when Decaturish suggested that the board’s prior meetings could have violated the state’s open meetings law, calling those concerns ‘unfounded and reckless.’”

This statement misrepresents what I actually said and fails to provide your readers with the full context of my comment.  What I pushed back on was your reckless and unfounded use of words like “illegal,” not your interpretation of the Open Meetings Act.

In emails you sent Ms. Arnold over the past two weeks, you indicated you had “researched” the issue and that your “interpretation” of the Open Meetings Act indicated that because the members of the Decatur Legacy Project, Inc. Board are appointed by the City Commission, past meetings should comply with the Act.  Late yesterday, I provided you with my assessment.  I specifically stated that I would welcome the opportunity to review any legal authority you had discovered on the subject.  In your email reply immediately thereafter, you conceded that you “don’t have any specific legal research to show [me],” you again emphasized the fact that DLP Board members are appointed by the City Commission, and you stated your concern “that any prior meetings they had were illegal and anything they did in those meetings would not survive a court challenge.”

My actual response, which you only partially quoted, was as follows: “Given the totality of your actual legal research, it seems that throwing around words like ‘illegal’ and suggesting that ‘anything they did in those meetings would not survive a court challenge’ is unfounded and reckless.’”  I further stated: “I would certainly hope you would not publish such statements, which I now know have very little substantive basis, without at least a competing opinion from an attorney or expert on the Open Meetings Act confirming your legal theory.”  Only then did you disclose that you were in fact consulting with an attorney and that she felt it was a “gray area.”  Your receipt of this guidance from your own source validated my concern that throwing around terms like “illegal” and suggesting the possibility of litigation against a non-profit corporation was unfounded and reckless.  After all, your own expert acknowledges that, at best, there is not a clear answer and there is room for differing interpretations.

“Downs wasn’t ready to tackle” the question of whether the DLP Board will be subject to the Open Records Act.”

This statement does not accurately report why I declined after business hours last night to engage further with you about nuanced legal issues.

Having provided you with a well-reasoned, informed assessment of the Open Meetings Act issue, only to receive multiple terse email responses from you, which ignored your own expert’s assessment, I declined to engage further with you. This was at 6:35 p.m. To say that I was not ready “to tackle” the issue is inaccurate and injects your editorial take on my last response in our email exchange.  Like many lawyers, I tackle difficult issues every day in my law practice.  But I sometimes decline to engage in unproductive back and forth when I believe that someone is really not interested in my opinion.  That’s different from being willing to “tackle” an issue.  Of course, the reality is that these are not terribly complicated issues. I had a general answer to your question about the Open Records Act last night.  But I certainly had a right to tell you that I was not interested in continuing exchanging emails, especially after hours.

In closing, I note in your instructions regarding letters to the editor that you reserve the right to “edit letters for length and content.”  If you decide to do so with respect to this letter, please let me know before you do so that I can decide whether your edits dilute or otherwise modify the letter to an unacceptable degree.

Sincerely yours,

Bryan A. Downs

 

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