Ch Ch Ch Changes...
Front Page, Week of Feb. 19
There will be no Inside Scoop this week because I have some things to share with all the readers, paid or unpaid. This week’s Front Page will also be taking on a slightly different format than what you may be used to as well.
I’ll start with the bad news.
Because of a sudden change in my personal life, I’m required to find a full-time job in order to support myself. The patchwork of Copper Beacon subscription fees, charity, and odd jobs that I survived on for the last year is simply not going to be adequate moving forward. Because of this, a lot of the reporting I’ve been doing will have to be discontinued or significantly scaled back.
I will continue reporting on the Houghton County Board of Commissioners, I hope to be able to continue regular photography of local events, and I’m also going to try and continue my podcast series, but much of my other reporting will either end or radically change as I pivot to administrative and editor work.
Now, the good news!
First, while I’m disappointed to be discontinuing my public meeting video recordings, many of the public bodies that I was doing this for have decided to stream their own meetings. As much as I’d like to take credit for that, I think it probably has more to do with Dick Storm and other residents like you requesting it. If you are interested in seeing a live video or video recordings of these meetings keep asking your governments. Once they’re streaming, it’s just a couple of steps to get the quality right through camera and microphone adjustments, uploading the recording to YouTube, and enabling online interaction with the public. It’s only hard the first time you do it, then it’s just fine-tuning from there. Having reported on these public bodies, I have confidence in their ability to pull it off.
Secondly, we already have interns starting on stories! Copper Beacon’s first interns are a trio of students working on a single story each as part of a “micro-internship” for one of their classes at MTU. I’m working closely with them on their first stories, and they should be ready in a couple of weeks. From there, I’m hoping to recruit more student writers and be able to hire an intern or two for summer reporting once this semester is over.
Thirdly, since I’ll be working full-time to support myself, I’ll no longer be drawing on Copper Beacon’s subscription fees, which means I’ll be able to pay our freelancers and interns a fair rate moving forward. This was always a chief goal of Copper Beacon, although this wasn’t the original plan on how to achieve that. Copper Beacon has to have more than one reporter to be a real source of news in the Keweenaw, so as my reporting becomes rare, I’m aiming to replace it with the writing of high school and college students, retirees, community volunteers, and other interested people. I’ll be out recruiting starting this week and putting together training sessions for people who are interested but don’t know where to start.
Finally, I’m going to try and include more information about community events and opportunities in the “Other News” section that’s typically at the bottom of each of these emails, as well as on Copper Beacon’s Facebook page. If you have information about something that will be happening in your community soon, please feel free to respond to any Copper Beacon email with that information, share it with the Copper Beacon Facebook page, or email me directly at email@example.com. Posters and images are great options to have if you can attach them.
I’ll be rolling out a reader survey once things in my life have settled a little bit to get feedback and see if readers feel any more changes to the format should be made. I’m doing my best to build Copper Beacon into a self-sustaining, comprehensive news outlet, and nobody said it would be a smooth path!
Now, on to a little news from this week.
Houghton County Commissioners, Feb. 15, 2022
The county pays about $1 million in “bills” every month, but for months (maybe years, this started before my time), the recipients of those bills have been kept from the public. Copper Beacon’s efforts to bring this information to the public have so far been met with a stonewall of refusals to respect Michigan FOIA law.
By Bruce Johanson
After 25 years, ski hill management is coming full circle back to the MDNR.
The Exploitation of Ontonagon, Pt. 4
Bruce’s series continues with a focus on the paper-making industry this week.
Houghton County’s weak FOIA excuses
The Houghton County Commissioners and administrator keep finding new ways to ignore the Michigan Freedom of Information Act and keep where the county’s money goes hidden from public view, even as they begin talks on how to spend federal and state COVID-19 stimulus money.
Copper Beacon again requested the check register, similar to what the cities of Hancock, Houghton, and other local government units make freely available for their residents and the media, only to be given a denial and excuses by the county.
The newest excuse is that some of the information is private, and so the entire document cannot be released publicly. County Administrator Elizabeth Bjorn suggested that one piece of private information is “the names of minors.” However, there is no legal expectation of privacy in a name alone, minor or not. While some information regarding minors is especially privileged, their names are not.
Furthermore, the Freedom of Information Act does take the potential for private information in government documents into account. Section 13 of the law has a list of legally acceptable exemptions from disclosure that may or may not apply to the withheld information (it’s impossible for me to say since I haven’t seen it). The first among them is “information of a personal nature…”. FOIA requires the government body to cite one of these or another legal precedent when denying a FOIA request. Houghton County has not cited any law or legal precedent in its denials.
And beyond that, if there is truly sensitive information contained within these documents, FOIA law does not allow the government to withhold all of the information as a consequence. The government body is required to separate the exempt from the non-exempt information (usually by redaction), provide an explanation for why that information was removed, and provide the non-exempt information to the requestor. The requestor can be charged for the cost and time this takes the FOIA coordinator or other government employee tasked with the duty. Houghton County has made no effort to communicate a cost or need for this separation of material to happen in regards to Copper Beacon’s requests.
Tikkanen called this a “fully transparent process”, because of the option to come into the county building to inspect these records and create an abstract (but not make copies). I can’t fathom how he can say that so soon after their vote to renew streaming meetings online, in part because of the travel required to reach the county seat from outlying areas. Beyond that, his statement ignores the function of the press to disseminate information. Should the hundreds of Copper Beacon readers, to say nothing of other local media, all descend upon the county administration building to discover how their tax dollars are being used? This is not feasible, and so it is not at all “fully” transparent.
And other options for viewing do not make the county’s FOIA denials any more compliant with FOIA law, either.
I can visit the county offices, that’s not an issue, but if I’m not allowed to make copies or take scans of the documents in question, then it does not fulfill my objective, which is to bring primary documents to my audience and ensure government transparency.
I think my time is better spent on grant proposals for legal aid. And their time would be better spent learning about the Freedom of Information Act instead of finding reasons to ignore it.
Other News (aggregated, not sponsored)
//Click on the headlines to read the full story.
The Associated Press
The money includes $45,000 for a feasibility analysis for shoreline protection and restoration.
David Eggert, Associated Press
“Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Wednesday stopped recommending that masks be worn inside schools and other public places to curb COVID-19 in Michigan, pointing to a drop in cases and hospitalizations.”
The Associated Press
No, police in Paris did not give tickets to people for simply waving a flag and saying “freedom”.
Village of Calumet press release
The Village of Calumet is accepting applications to fill two vacancies on the Calumet Village Council. These appointments have terms ending in November 2022.
PLDL press release
“The Makerspace is a room dedicated to the crafters and makers in our community. In it, you will find various tools, power tools, and sewing machines! Some of the power tools are available for check out, but all other tools are currently for in-house use only.”
Chris Davis, The Lode
“Going forward, the plan is to provide one-way viewing access to the public over Zoom. If all goes well, the council seemed open to the idea of public comment through the meeting platform, but this remains a contingency.”
Tucker Nielsen, The Lode
This story also includes information about a 5,000-year-old excavation site discovered at the Mont Ripley washout from the 2018 Father’s Day Flood.