I’ve been a reporter in McAlester for 10 years now and during that time I’ve had trouble getting public documents only twice.

The first time involved a copy of the complete budget from the McAlester Regional Health Center back in the late 90s. Then-CEO Joel Tate said the newspaper could have the documents, but it would cost 25 cents per page. I smiled and said send a bill along with the documents.

The second time happened this week. the McAlester News-Capital has requested detailed billing records from the city of McAlester for the dozens of cellular phones used by city employees and officials. Someone, and I’m not sure who, has said we can have the documents — about 100 pages per month — for 25 cents per page. Send us a bill and send us the documents.

Government officials — at all levels — try this tactic with the press when they want to squelch a request or make it more difficult to gather information which might prove embarrassing (or enlightening, depending on your point of view).

The thinking must go “If we make them pay, they’ll rethink the request.” That rarely happens. We’ll pay the fee under protest. We believe newspapers have a duty to act as watchdogs over local government and a big part of that includes pouring over documents. We believe local government should willingly provide these documents at no charge to bona fide members of the press.

Journalists, like the ones who work at this newspaper, are paid to pour through reams of paper looking for information important to the the community. They are paid to dig out the facts and present them to readers in a manner that allows better decision making by citizens.

Charging fees for documents won’t stop journalists, it simply shows a lack of foresight on the part of some public officials. The free flow of information builds trust, something some officials have a hard time understanding.

The city has provided this newspaper reams of documents at no charge over the years. We are puzzled as to why, suddenly, the city feels compelled to charge for documents requested in the public interest.

The documents requested are not used for our amusement. They are used in our pursuit of the truth and as a part of this newspaper’s responsibility to inform McAlester citizens.

We’ve requested the documents and we’ll pay the fees. Moreover, we’ll let you know what we find out.

Matt Lane is the editor of the McAlester News-Capital. Send him hate mail or encouragement to: Editor, P.O. Box 987, McAlester, OK, 74501. Call him at 421-2022 or send an e-mail to editor@mcalesternews.com.

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