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January 16, 2014

VAN HOY: A few words with you, please

— It’s not feasible for an elected official serving the area the size of Clark County, Jeffersonville, New Albany or even Sellersburg to talk to his or her constituents directly on a regular basis. The constraints of time and space make it impossible.

There are many outlets, however, which make mass communication with residents and voters possible — social media, mass mailings, press conferences and town hall meeting are a few.

There’s also the media in general — newspapers, television, radio and Internet news sites — which can be utilized. Speaking from the News and Tribune’s perspective, the majority of elected officials in our coverage area of Clark and Floyd counties are good to work with. They are receptive to questions and recognize, as the best source of local news, the newspaper is still an efficient way to get their message out to the people who ultimately hold their fate in office.

Of course, there are times when an official may be upset with the media. It happens, and normally the issue is resolved with a conversation and an apology, if needed. We certainly aren’t immune to mistakes.

Two of our core values at the News and Tribune are honesty and integrity. We try to treat sources — including elected officeholders — fairly.

With that being said, public officials should be held to a higher standard by media and the public. They have a responsibility to their constituents, just as the News and Tribune has a responsibility to its readers.

On any given day, there is probably a source we deal with on a regular basis who isn’t particularly thrilled with something we publish. Infrequently, an official will decline to talk to us about a story.

I also can recall a couple of instances over my more than eight years as editor of the News and Tribune when a public official declined to talk to us for an extended period of time because of something that appeared in the paper.

In those cases, the newspaper and the source have agreed to disagree on coverage or policy matters and normally the issue works itself out with time and the parties resume a professional relationship.

But when an elected official issues a blanket edict not to talk to the media — any media — it’s the public that loses.

That is the case with Clark Circuit Court No. 2 Judge Jerry Jacobi. The judge recently — and in the past — has refused to talk to the News and Tribune for matters that involve his court and taxpayer money. He’s declined to talk to other media outlets as well, including WHAS-TV in Louisville for the same Drug Court investigation story the News and Tribune has reported.

He has not even given the media a “no comment.” He’s just been evasive, going as far as to have a court employee tell the News and Tribune that he “doesn’t talk to the media.”

To be blunt, that’s an embarrassment.

Jacobi’s livelihood is paid for by you and your family, friends and neighbors. He asks the voting residents of Clark County for their support, but won’t communicate with them in the local newspaper or TV stations.

We at the News and Tribune would understand if he told a reporter that he simply could not talk about an issue because of legal reasons, but that’s not the case. It’s refusal, avoidance or both.

Combined, our public safety and Clark County government reporters have been covering their respective beats for more than three years. Neither has ever heard Jacobi’s voice. That’s despite phone calls and visits to Jacobi’s office requesting interviews.

Some people reading this column may think this is about the newspaper or some grudge. It’s not. It’s about the people who pay Jacobi’s salary and the salaries of all elected officials.

Those officials have an obligation that goes beyond that of the private citizen. Part of that obligation is to be accountable to constituents.

One of the means to that end is to speak with the media. Jacobi’s avoidance raises many questions, including, what is there to hide?

Elected officials should have the willingness to explain their actions to the public. If they don’t, they should find another profession.

— Shea Van Hoy is editor of the News and Tribune. Reach him via email at shea.vanhoy@newsandtribune.com

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