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As anyone who has ever spent time in those parts knows, they do it their way in Helena, from the music to the food to the politicking. This time, the weirdo-vortex has managed to suck a hard-working reporter through the looking glass and into the headlines of her own newspaper.
It all started Jan. 10, when Helena Daily World reporter Michele Page faxed an FOI request to the H-WH police, seeking a recording of a Jan. 9 call made by a 911 dispatcher to a boy who called the line and then hung up. According to the boy's family, the dispatcher made off-color comments to the child during that call. The recording had still not been turned over to the Daily World on Feb. 12, when Brinkley district court Judge John Martin issued what might be a first of its kind in the state: an honest-to-God arrest warrant for someone accused of flouting the FOI law. Helena-West Helena Mayor James Valley — who claims the tape in question doesn't exist — served the warrant against interim H-HW Police Chief Fred Fielder. Later, the city paid Fielder's $305 bail.
As if that wasn't weird enough, Valley cranked the absurdity up another notch at the most recent meeting of the H-WH city council, authoring a resolution to formally condemn Page “and repudiating the actions of the management of the Daily World (for) supporting her in her erroneous quest that serves no purpose but to embarrass the community of Helena-West Helena.” The proposed resolution went on to say that Page was known to make an “unusually high number” of FOI requests, and called her reporting disingenuous and nonprofessional.
“(T)he city council expresses its deep dissatisfaction with the Daily World for allowing a staffer to go on such an (sic) quest when its own publication has reported on the city's efforts to comply with the request of Ms. Page thereby allowing her to bring nothing but embarrassment to our community based on an allegation with no basis in fact,” Valley wrote. Though the resolution circulated among the members of the city council, it was never formally put to a vote.
The battle over FOI requests to the city started early in Page's tenure at the Daily World. She started out making oral requests, which she said were routinely ignored. Even after she started filing formal FOI requests — and making complaints to the sheriff's office when they weren't fulfilled — she often waited months without much of a response. Though Page said she never wanted to see the police chief arrested, she ain't quite crying Fielder a river, either.While it was her name on the complaint that got the warrant issued, she said that Valley and the city should recognize that it's about the public's right to the news, not about the reporter who gathers it. “It's not about persons,” Page said. “It's about media. It wouldn't matter if the sports editor went and asked for those records. It would still be a media representative. We don't make the news. We report it.”
As you might imagine, Valley doesn't have much good to say about Page. While he said he doesn't believe she has a vendetta against him or the city, he does contend that she is overzealous and antagonistic as a reporter.
“It's almost as if she's an employee,” he said. “Every day, one of our departments is dealing with one of her FOI requests: ‘Who took the fire department test? Who scratched somebody's back? And who ran off in a ditch?…' There's a difference between being a reporter that covers the city and what she's doing. Her angle is always ‘You've done something wrong, and I'm going to catch you at it.' ”
Page noted that, in the same city council meeting where Valley intended to condemn her, he tried to use another article she wrote on the education incentive to support his position. As for the failed resolution, she said she didn't mind it much; though — like any good reporter — she did want Valley to get the facts straight.
“I asked the mayor to change the wording because a legislative body only has the right to condemn houses, not people,” she said. “I don't mind if they try to condemn me or criticize me before the council, but maybe they should have chosen better wording on the document.”
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