Other than approving Legal Defense Fund grants for three free-press freedom fighters, the most important thing the SPJ board did at its April 20 spring meeting was adopt a new Openness and Accountability Best Practices Guide.
You’d be forgiven for wondering why the directors of a journalism organization found it necessary, even important, to craft a set of guidelines for itself and its local chapters.
As private non-profits, SPJ and its subordinate entities — student and professional chapters — aren’t subject to open-meetings and open-records laws. Indeed, SPJ leaders have a legal obligation to withhold some information from public scrutiny. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t prevent SPJ from being as transparent as possible.
The guidelines adopted in April arose from a spirited debate at the national delegates meeting in Fort Lauderdale in September and as a corollary to financial best practices adopted last year in the wake of financial malfeasance in the Oklahoma Pro chapter.
SPJ President-Elect Dave Cuillier, with help from other SPJ leaders, crafted the openness and accountability proposal that the board unanimously approved. Here’s the full document:
OPENNESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY BEST PRACTICES GUIDE
The Society of Professional Journalists and its professional and student chapters are not government entities, but members believe in the strongest principles of transparency — that the business of the members should be done before the members, inviting the members to participate. The following guidelines provide tips and recommendations for fostering openness and accountability at the local, regional and national levels of the society.
SPJ meetings at the local and national level should follow the spirit of state sunshine laws (for a good description of open meeting law elements, see rcfp.org/ogg). Leaders should:
• Post meeting time, date and place information in advance for members, prospective members, and the public, on a website, Facebook page, email or other accessible venue.
• Include action/discussion items in meeting agendas to increase meeting attendance and attract potential new members. Members should contact the president at least two days in advance of the meeting if they would like to request a topic for the agenda.
• Allow anyone from the membership or public to observe meetings. Provide an open comment period to let people chime in.
• Post a summary of the meeting at a chapter website promptly, preferably within five business days of the meeting, so members can keep abreast of chapter activities. Include any decisions or votes.
• Make meetings accessible, both physically and electronically. Meetings should be held where people are welcome to attend and can easily access. Consider GoToMeeting or other electronic means of broadcasting meetings and allowing participation for those who cannot get to the meeting, but are interested in what happens.
• Account for circumstances where private discussion among leaders is necessary, similar to state open meeting laws. For example, typical exemptions that might allow meeting in “executive session” include considering/ debating the qualifications of new leader appointees, rent negotiations for space, pending/potential litigation, etc. If board members do discuss matters in executive session, they should come out and make any decisions and votes publicly.
RECORDS AND COMMUNICATIONS
Society records and communications should be as open as possible to foster understanding, trust and efficiency. In general, just like meetings, apply the gist of state public record laws to SPJ functions, at least in spirit if not in letter.
• Make available online, if possible, and in a publicly available binder, governance documents, including bylaws, policies, annual IRS 990 forms, annual budget summaries, meeting minutes and reports. This has the added benefit of saving institutional knowledge to be more easily passed along to new members/leaders.
• Follow the “Finances: Best Practices” recommendations at spj.org/chapter-best-practices.asp to prevent fraud within the organization. Provide a monthly financial report, budget, annual report and other financial information to members and the public. For extra transparency, member trust, and a barrier to malfeasance, post bank statements online as pdfs, with account numbers redacted, monthly, quarterly, or annually. If not feasible, allow members or the public to view chapter financial records by appointment.
• Provide a public forum for members to share information, discuss issues and network, such as a chapter Word- Press blog, Facebook page, Twitter, or other social media venue. Use third-party software to annually archive the content of those online resources and save to a computer and binder (e.g., TwInBox, Tweetake, SocialSafe, Cloudpreservation).
• Respond promptly, ideally the same day, to any request from the media or public regarding the chapter. Provide national headquarters and other relevant leaders a heads up when SPJ might make the news. See SPJ’s Social Media Guidelines for more tips about public communication as an SPJ leader.
• Assume that chapter email communications could be made available publicly, either through leaks, inadvertent “cc’s” or even through state public record requests (some members and leaders are government employees and subject to public record laws, even when using their private emails). If you absolutely don’t want something spread through email, then it’s best to pick up the phone.
• Account for circumstances where society records and communications should be kept secret for legitimate reasons, such as personnel, potential litigation, etc. Redact exempt information if need be, such as bank account numbers and dates of birth.
• Openly disclose any potential, real or perceived conflicts of interest of chapter leaders. Document in publicly accessible documents, such as meeting minutes, to demonstrate that leaders, chapters, and the society are not hiding anything.