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Columbia Association Board Member Blogs About Meetings, Warts and All

Should everything said at meetings be fair game?

What happens when a prominent blogger is elected to public office and writes about the meetings he attends, warts and all? Tom Coale is finding out.

Coale was elected in April to the Dorsey’s Search Village Board as its representative to the Columbia Association Board of Directors. He is also the voice behind local blog HoCo Rising.

He posted his first recap of a CA board meeting May 13, giving the rundown of how the board’s new chairman was elected. 

The candidates were Michael Cornell of River Hill and incumbent Cynthia Coyle of Harper’s Choice. During the meeting, Gregg Schwind of Hickory Ridge criticized the length of board meetings under Coyle, the blog post reported

“Gregg’s concerns certainly took on the color of accusations, and it was clear that [Coyle] took offense,” Coale wrote. “While he was speaking, she whispered, ‘He hates me,’ and leaned over to Mike to say ‘This is your supporter,’ suggesting that Mike should disassociate himself from such comments.”

Cornell was elected chairman.

Coale wrote again about CA the following day, describing a meeting he and another member attended, but fallout lingered from his post the preceding day.

A board member emailed Coale about it. “They said they appreciated what I was trying to do but thought I had breached the board’s trust in posting what other board members had said at the meeting,” Coale said. He declined to say which board member contacted him.

The email mentioned the posting of Coyle’s comment, “but my impression was that they just did not like the idea that I was posting about what was going on at the meetings,” Coale said.

Coale said that he doesn’t regret the post. He said it met his standard of only writing about open meetings, being fair and posting facts rather than interpretations.

“I think it’s very important for people who are not familiar with the board to not only know the hard facts on the ground, but to also understand what the meetings are like,” Coale said. “That was what the meeting was like.”

Coyle said that she read Coale’s post after being told about it.

“I don’t think he had ill intentions; I think he’s trying to be transparent,” she said. “His intentions are probably quite honorable, but I don’t think that it’s healthy for the board.”

She noted that the comment Coale reported was not meant for public consumption.

“When people say things in private or are not intending to be public in their discussion, I think that the board needs to respect that with each other, because I think there is a feeling of lack of trust if you don’t do that,” she said. “I just think that if you lose trust in your fellow board members, that’s not a good thing.”

She said her whispering to another board member is “not a board decision” and “is not something that needs to be in the public eye.”

Still, Coyle said, the board has a responsibility to speak openly and honestly with community members. Coale’s blog is one way to make people aware of what’s happening with CA and its board, she said.

“The more communication we have, the better,” she said.

Other board members said they were supportive of Coale’s blogging.

“To the extent that he’s reporting on his observations of public meetings, our meetings are fair game for that,” said Schwind, of Hickory Ridge. “He could be you sitting in the audience writing what you think of our meeting. He happens to be on the board. As long as he’s reporting only on open meetings, I don’t think that’s a problem.”

Schwind said he was also okay with conversations between colleagues during meetings being reported.

“What if the microphone was particularly sensitive and you heard it in the audience? It’s an open meeting,” he said. “Everything we say and do there is open to public scrutiny and public reporting.”

Cornell, the new board chairman, said he has run into a similar issue while writing a column for the River Hill village newsletter.

“There have been one or two [village] board members who’ve expressed concerns over the content of my columns and were trying to create very strict guidelines about what I could or couldn’t write,” Cornell said. “That, to me, is censorship.”

Andrew Stack of Owen Brown said Coale’s blog reaches a different audience and in a different manner than press releases, CA-produced video segments and other methods of telling residents about board business.

“We print minutes, but they’re not necessarily the most exciting things to read,” Stack said. “We put our agenda online, but not everybody reads that.”

Coale said he considered the CA board to be “foreign to most people” despite the number of documents available online.

“My effort and my interest is to make it relatable and accessible to people that are interested in what the CA board does,” he said, “and, more importantly, to bring a little bit more attention to the manner in which CA goes about its business.”

Tom (HCR) May 20, 2011 at 12:28 PM
Nice piece, David. As a follow up, I think the Board needs to be careful about not putting "what's good for the Board" ahead of "what's good for Columbia."
Brian Hooks (Editor) May 20, 2011 at 05:38 PM
Interesting point, Tom. I find this particularly interesting because your role on the board is something that a professional journalist 10 years ago would most definitely NOT be able to report on... Seeing as to how I wasn't actually at the meeting, I don't want to assume anything, but I wonder whether there may have been an expectation of privacy if Coyle was making a single exchange with another person. Even though the meeting is a public event, that doesn't necessarily mean a person sheds all rights to privacy. If she had said "He hates me" via text message, would it be okay to report it if you happened to see what she wrote?
Tom (HCR) May 20, 2011 at 06:01 PM
Thanks for the follow up questions, Brian. I'm not a journalist and I don't hold myself out to be one. However, I'm unclear as to whether you are suggesting that journalists would consider a comment that was material to the deliberations of the Board (i.e., the suggestion that a Board member "hates" the individual he is criticizing), would be protected by some unspecified right to privacy. If a Board member falls asleep at a meeting, would that be fair game for a reporter to include in their coverage? Certainly this Board memeber would not "intend" for that to be made public, but it relates to their participation in the business of CA. Heck, insofar as we are talking about what journalists are "allowed" to report, the scandals from Clinton to Arnold would seem to fall outside of that gambit. My view is that when you are sitting before the public in an open meeting, you have an obligation of decorum and are responsible for anything you decide to do while sitting behind a name plate that says your name and your village. We have recording devices in front of just about every other seat. Privacy does not exist outside of your inner thoughts and feelings. As I told David and made clear in my posts, I'm only interested in posting about public meetings. As such, I would not be posting about a text message. However, I don't see anything wrong with doing so, especially if it related to the comments that were being made at the meeting.
Lisa Rossi May 20, 2011 at 06:07 PM
Thanks, Tom. I will definitely be following your posts on HoCo Rising about your experience on the CA. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
Brian Hooks (Editor) May 20, 2011 at 06:39 PM
I wasn't asserting that you should be holding yourself to the same standard as a journalist, I was simply pointing to the fact that such instances are becoming more and more frequent as the boundaries defining journalists and bloggers are graying. Like I said, I don't know the dynamics of the meetings, and I can't decipher the exact nature of the exchange, but I also don't necessarily buy the idea that "Privacy does not exist outside of your inner thoughts and feelings." Personal email has been defined in U.S. precedent as providing a "reasonable expectation of privacy." I would bet a judge would say the same about a text message. BUT considering the real exchange was neither of these, and she knew she was in hearing distance of you, I'd say you're perfectly justified. It would be awfully hard to prove a "reasonable" expectation of privacy, in this case. I just find this topic to be a new a new, interesting and important point of discussion.
Tom (HCR) May 20, 2011 at 06:51 PM
Brian, I'm sure you are aware that the "reasonable expectation of privacy" has been repeatedly narrowed throughout the years and that even the contents of an individual's trash have been found to be outside of what is protected. Moreover, that expectation relates to criminal investigations, not journalism. The idea that the protections under criminal procedure are also extended to what can be covered in our newspaper is incorrect and would be quite damaging to our public discourse. I'm sure a quick Google search would show that e-mails, text messages, and pinkie-sworn secrets have all found themselves into the most prestigious of newspapers (ok, maybe not the latter). Also, I think you may have taken my quote out of context. I said that when you are sitting in an open meeting as a public official/representative, "Privacy does not exist outside of your inner thoughts and feelings." That is much different than how you implied in your response.
Tom (HCR) May 20, 2011 at 06:54 PM
I stand corrected. It looks like there is a privacy standard for journalists and not just related to criminal procedure, but I think it is much more narrow than the one applied in criminal cases.
Jessie at CA May 20, 2011 at 08:01 PM
David, Thanks for your article on this subject. I think we're fortunate in CA, in Columbia and with the CA board to have a seasoned blogger, a respectful and respected citizen and a bright and kind blogger/board member/boundary pusher all in one. Communities, organizations, board rooms and more across America are dealing with the cultural change brought about by the technologies and the generations using them. We're not in any way unique in adapting to new technologies and rising generations of leaders. I, personally, think we're fortunate to be able to explore this edge of comfort and discomfort with a blogger whose stance and position is one of service and progression. He's not here to destroy, but to shine light on that which is perhaps a bit calcified and arthritic. Open. Open. Open. It's the call of the times! It's where the energy is. http://fedscoop.com/fedtalks/opengov2011/
Anne May 20, 2011 at 08:40 PM
Criminal defendants who raise objections to evidence produced incidental to wiretaps have to be reminded that unless they are in a situation wherein they have a "reasonable expectation of privacy", they can be overheard or taped or tapped! With the development of parabolic microphones, short of Maxwell Smart's "Cone of Silence", there should be no assumption that a conversation cannot be overheard. Remember Reagan's gaffe when he assumed that microphones were turned off & he parodied a phone call to Gorbachev telling him that ICBMs had just been launched? I am more disturbed by the comments made by Ms. Coyle. It reminds me of comments appropriate to high school & the fact that she whispered during her opponents speech is downright rude!
Anne May 20, 2011 at 08:46 PM
And before I forget, the privacy standard for journalists is that anything said "off record" is not for publication! During my recent interactions w/ members of the Fourth Estate I told each reporter that certain information was NOT for publication. Each journalist was scrupulous in their observance of my edict. Lastly, I have been pleasantly surprised by Mr. Coale's blog. He is unlike so many of the residents of Columbia who blithely assume that they are in the "best of all possible worlds" a la Professor Pangloss of Candide. Mr. Coale, please keep it up!

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