The editorial went on to describe what the state Legislature intended in enacting the Alabama Open Records Act and what the state Supreme Court had decided in a particular Open Records Act case involving a public hospital, all to give readers the impression that RMC was, by seeking a ruling, accusing The Star of a criminal act and committing waste with public dollars. Boldly, the editors said in the first sentence that The Star should not be subject to a civil lawsuit.
The editors failed to inform readers of three critical facts concerning this matter.
The first is that The Star’s lawyer informed RMC that he was authorized to file a suit against RMC unless RMC complied with the request. Next, the editorial leaves out mention that the same Legislature that passed the Open Records Act also provided a path (declaratory-judgment actions) for judicial resolution of disputes about whether records are public and also whether they must be produced. Finally, the editorial does not mention that the Supreme Court held, in the case it cites as binding on RMC to produce records, that each case is to be adjudicated on the particular facts, circumstances and records involved for a determination as to whether the public records in question are due to be disclosed.
RMC acknowledges that the records sought were “public records.” It differed with The Star about whether disclosure was required. When an agreement could not be reached, and when The Star hired counsel to file suit against it, RMC decided to exercise its right to ask for a court to decide the issue.
I take issue with the editor’s incomplete presentation of the facts and law and especially the strong suggestion to readers that The Star should somehow be exempt from a civil lawsuit over the serious question of law. Further, in my opinion, the editors disserve the public they purport to serve when they suggest that RMC is persecuting the newspaper for “criminal” journalism.
Yes, I understand the editorial page is for opinions and perspectives, but editorials should not be so biased as to leave out important facts, especially those about itself when the newspaper is a party to a disagreement. I agree that “committing journalism is not a crime.” Instead, I say to your readers it is a responsibility and a duty of trust with the public. The Star is not always right, fair or even accurate, and it is certainly not exempt from suit. A newspaper is not imperial.
RMC, while it is a “public hospital,” is totally self-supporting. Its annual operating budget is approximately the same as the combined budgets of Calhoun County and the cities of Anniston, Jacksonville and Oxford. RMC receives no funding from the tax revenues of the mentioned governments. Moreover, in 2012 alone, RMC provided more than $53 million in medical services to local citizens who were unable to pay. It operates in a highly competitive environment and must have some latitude in keeping its proprietary transactions from disclosure to competitors who might gain advantages, thereby leaving RMC without the ability to fulfill its mission and provide charity care. This, too, is in the public interest, and our courts are established to decide such questions. Our citizens and local governments are fortunate that RMC has been able to provide a safety net to citizens without them being taxed. This is not the case in many communities.
RMC directors are appointed by the governmental entities in our community, and they serve diligently as public trustees without compensation. They are well aware of, and burdened by, this responsibility and have done a superb job in managing one of the most significant assets for our community in a highly competitive environment. Our dedicated doctors, nurses and staff serve our patients faithfully and with great skill and compassion. RMC’s directors make tough and important decisions on a regular basis. That they do so without agreement with The Star should be a concern only if one of those groups feels that it is both right and exempt from judicial process, review and direction. Newspapers can be persuasive, beneficial and oppressive. They own the paper, the printing press and the editors. The public discourse serves us all, and it is even better when the issues are fairly and completely reported and editorialized.
I thank The Anniston Star for allowing these facts and my perspective to be printed.
Gregory J. Kernion is chairman of the Regional Medical Center Board of Directors.