Wednesday, November 9, 2005
One month after taking over the mayor's seat, Frank Melton said that the news business hadn't quite worked its way out of his soul.
"I'm a journalist. That's what I've been for 30 years. I'll never give that up," the former general manager of WLBT-TV told reporters at an Aug. 23 City Council meeting, explaining why he felt he could lie in documents in a lawsuit filed against him by former employees of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.
Melton's lawyer James Metz even described Melton's lies to the judge as those of a reporter with news obligations. "Mr. Melton is not a lawyer; he's in the news business," Metz said. "He thought he was protecting a source." The judge didn't buy it: Melton was the source, and even journalists cannot lie under oath.
Shaping the News
Still, the new mayor often relies on his friendly relationship with the Fourth Estate. His strong ties to the news industry may not have translated into a good government/news relationship on some fronts, however. One-hundred and twenty days into his administration, Melton was speaking frequently with some news organizations while remaining stand-offish to others.
"I don't talk to you people," Melton told the Jackson Free Press soon after his election. "I don't like what you people do. It's just not good reporting." The Jackson Free Press was the first media outlet to report that Melton had lied to the court in Meridian, among other revelations and facts about his campaign and administration that no other media outlets have bothered to cover.
This does not seem to sit well with the new mayor.
In the beginning months, Melton's low regard for early news agencies carried over into the behavior of his public-relations people.
"I am extremely cautious with the JFP because of the way the paper reported and positioned the information during the campaign," said Carolyn Redd, who manages public information for the mayor, in an e-mail to Jackson Free Press editor Donna Ladd, explaining why she was not always forthcoming with public information and access for this newspaper.
When pushed for quotes from the mayor, Redd, Melton's sister-in-law, suggested the JFP "continue to attend the city council meetings and work sessions and catch him there for short briefings."
In an Aug. 10 meeting with two JFP reporters, Redd said that other media got better treatment because they were more understanding of Melton's inexperience and forgiving of his frequent off-the-cuff statements.
"Frank is the kind of mayor who speaks from his chest, who will close down a place before he goes and gets the order, but he has a city attorney who knows better and will educate him instead of writing him up and saying bad things about him. I'm saying that the relationship he has with The Clarion-Ledger and reporters at TV stations have been forged out of a trust relationship, that they know that he's basically trying to do the right thing," Redd explained, adding that the mayor had no desire to seek out interviews with media that publishes negative information about him.
Denials of requests for information must be in writing and contain a specific reason for the denial, however. Such information is limited to academic and archeological records, and hospital records of individuals. The denial itself qualifies as public information and must remain on file for not less than three yearsand cannot be because the public official dislikes the outlet.
Any person who willingly and knowingly denies any person access to a public record that is not exempt shall be liable in a civil suit for a sum not to exceed $100plus all court costs.
Info for the Compliant
During Melton's first 120 days, the JFP requested numerous items of information, often getting either no response or one that was belated and not in writing. A request for a copy of the inaugural speech in July arrived at a press briefing one month later.
Requests for resumes and background material on Police Chief Shirlene Anderson and Assistant Chief Roy Sandefer, requested the first time in writing shortly after Melton took office in July, have not been received through the mayor's public relations office to datea sharp contrast to the virtual phone book of information handed out by the last administration right after Chief Robert Moore's appointment.
The police department had earlier referred those same requests to the mayor's office, which fired the JPD public information officer, Lt. Robert Graham. Melton himself refers all media requests about JPD to the chief's office. She, in turn, does not return phone calls.
The police chief had agreed to an interview with the Jackson Free Press in early October, but then canceled the interview the morning of the scheduled meeting.
"You were trying to interview Shirlene, and I told her 'no.' Not that she can't do what she wants to do, but because of missteps ," Melton told the JFP, allowing his statement to trail off without finishing. The next week, The Clarion-Ledger published a glowing interview with the chief.
Love Me, Love My Sweeps
Within his first few weeks, Melton liked to lead police raids, city sweeps and roadside checkpoints, surrounded by media of choice, but was loathe to notify the Jackson Free Press and some other media agencies.
Laura Gibbes, an attorney at Watkins, Ludlum, Winter & Stennis, which has sued the city for holding closed, un-announced council meetings, said the city is required to comply with the state's Public Records Act and The Meetings Act.
"The Public Records Act says you have to make a request in writing and specify the information you want, then they have about 14 days to comply. Sometimes that's difficult to meet, but my experience is that the city or the agency calls you and says 'we need an extra week or two,' and that people are most often willing to do that," Gibbes said.
The mayor's administration has become more accomodating in recent weeks, regularly sending out notification of press briefings at least. Redd, for instance, now returns calls or answers the phone directly and usually has an answer ready in time for a weekly deadline. Calls are also returned by Nash Nunnery of Constituent Services, Chief Administration Officer Robert Walker and Chief Finance Officer Peyton Prospere.
Phone calls to other city agencies like City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans are virtual shouts down a hole, however, and Evans must still be confronted at council meetings for any comment on stories.
Some information requests, such as last week's pull for a list of administration accomplishments during its first few months are still slow in coming, though it is possible this may be less about residual terror and more about an overworked public relations system, Gibbes suggests.
Can you believe these guys are trying to cover Melton's lawsuit damages with his Home Owners Insurance! The Ledge doen't mention they are being sued either. No word if they tried to contact their lawyer or who they are?
Does anyone not understand why Melton has "media of choice?" I mean, even when the Skin-Flute (isn't that the new name?) says Melton is wrong (Old hotel still has potential future... the west downtown building can be saved.), they also say he's really right ("But I'm still looking into having it destroyed [Melton]." ...And Melton is right.) Guess that's the whole thing behind Redd's statement that The Clarion-Ledger and reporters at TV stations ... know that heís basically trying to do the right thing." The Skin-Flute's crest needs to be a picture of Janus.
well maybe people are becoming more aware of what is going on in the city now crime doesnt appear to be less than it was when Johnson was in office (esp. following this "rise" in juvenile crime) i also dont "feel" any "safer" but it is very interesting that some of Melton's biggest supporters are now becoming whispering critics for the same reasons we were discussing when he was running for office i dont get it and im also not really understanding why they are so suprised with the results hes only doing what he has always done talk loud and forget his stick
Of course, the Ledge didn't mention they're being sued -- which makes no sense. Why not one line: "The Clarion-Ledger is also being sued for defamation." How stupid do they think people are? Don't y'all think it *raises* suspicions about their motives in not bringing up by their not bringing it up at all? You're right, Rex, it is "Skin-Flute" now, isn't it? I've been calling it Skin-Flint, I think. Either seems to work, but I'll try to get it right next time. ;-) Speaking of homeowners insurance, does anyone know the outcome of Mr. Melton's homestead exemption in Texas? I assume he got around to moving it here? Anyone know for sure? It seems rather obvious that the policy wouldn't pay if he admits that he lied, which he did. Not that it makes sense to me why it would pay in the first place, but I'm often befuddled by insurance. This is an intriguing saga, as we knew it would be when we first reported that the lawsuit had been filed against Melton and the Ledge during the campaign. Of course, the other media had a blackout on it.