EDITORIAL: Heflin shows how public responsibility is supposed to work

ANNISTON STAR EDITORIAL BOARD

Nobody likes to see negative headlines about themselves or their organization, but if/when it happens, how you respond to a crisis situation says as much about you as the headline itself.

The city of Heflin found itself in a negative spotlight of sorts this week when The Star published this headline: “Heflin clerk charged thousands to city card, statements show.”

Heflin City Clerk Shane Smith abruptly resigned Sept. 18, and city officials at the time gave no reason for the departure other than a statement from Mayor Rudy Rooks that said “internal control procedures were not followed,” according to a report by The Star’s Bill Wilson.

Last week, the mayor said “it appeared that he used the city credit card for personal purchases and, when I confronted Shane about that is when he resigned.” 

When you’re an elected official, the last thing you want is for city money — taxpayer money — to go missing or get mishandled in any way on your watch.

Understandably, city officials, including the mayor, were reluctant to talk on record. In all accounts, Smith had been a well-liked and obviously trusted city official, who should be presumed innocent unless convicted in a court of law. Any public statements — even when carefully worded with restraint — can be misconstrued as condemnation, an admission of personal guilt, or as neglecting responsibility.

So, The Star submitted an official records request, asking for monthly statements for the city’s credit cards beginning from September 2018 through August 2019, the month before Smith resigned.

Those records show that $58,013.67 was charged to the city’s credit cards over that time, and that $14,437.18 of that total was charged to Smith’s card. Through the records, The Star was able to report that Smith charged for 12 hotel stays, many of which coincided with conventions and training seminars. But the records also show two trips to New York City in November 2018  and June 2019 that appear to have been personal in nature.

Here’s what’s key. Heflin officials did not deny nor delay our request. They took the time to pull the exact records Wilson requested. And they handed it over in a timely fashion ... without charge.

Unfortunately, this is NOT the norm. Oftentimes, we have to cite state law repeatedly to remind city officials that the public has a right to access all official business conducted by city officials, whether it be in the form of meetings or records.

City officials, even those duly elected by popular vote, are not the owners of public information; they are the stewards of that information. You, the voters and residents, are the owners. Anyone, not just the media (but certainly including the media), has a right to request and in a timely fashion view any public document and attend any public meeting, unless otherwise outlined in one of the very few exceptions in state law.

Many public agencies delay responding to requests, or charge exorbitant fees for copies of records, or otherwise put up roadblocks to public information in an attempt to discourage anyone — especially the media — from making requests. 

But some agencies understand that every public official receives a salary by way of taxpayer dollars. They understand that police records and tax records and credit card records and city budgets are all considered public information and withholding access to that information is not only a violation of the law but also of public trust. 

If you’ve done nothing wrong, there should be nothing to hide.

We’re glad to say that the city of Heflin is among those who get it, and because they get it, The Star was able to notify the city’s residents about what happened with the city’s resources.

While the outcome involving the former city clerk is in the hands of the Ethics Commission, Heflin’s other city officials have demonstrated a willingness to be transparent and forthcoming about the public’s business. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

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