Yesterday, at the annual Pulitzer Prize banquet, Mark Mahoney laughed and pressed his forehead to the table as he and his fellow winners were congratulated on joining an exclusive club that counts Sylvia Plath, Walter Lippman, and Ernest Hemingway as members.
Mahoney’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing is quite a nod for himself and for his employer, The Post-Star, a 34,000-circulation paper based in the town of Glens Falls, New York. The award recognizes the work that Mahoney, a forty-five-year-old father of three daughters, has done drawing attention to open government and transparency issues, a common topic for any paper’s editorial page.
“A lot of us have an interest in that, but I’m not so sure it’s always interesting to the public,” says Bob Caldwell, editorial page editor of The Oregonian, who sat on the Pulitzer judging panel that recommended Mahoney for the prize. “That was why these columns caught my eye.”
“He rightly focused on local government,” says Caldwell, adding that Mahoney “underlines his work with examples from everyday life.”
Like the time that the Fort Edward school board negotiated a new contract with their local teachers union in closed sessions, and then orchestrated the formal agreements so there’d be no real opportunity for the public to view or comment on the terms before they were set. Or when the Whitehall town board and a state auditor insisted that a meeting on a clerk’s misappropriation of funds take place behind closed doors, in violation of state law. Or when the Warrensburg school board banned its rank-and-file members from speaking with the press.
Yes, it’s small town stuff. But that’s the point.
“Local government is the place where the application of these laws can really have a difference in people’s lives,” says Bob Freeman, the director of New York’s ombudsman-like State Committee on Open Government and a frequent Mahoney source. “I can’t help but think that his work has improved local government and improved people’s lives.”
Mahoney and The Post-Star have encouraged readers to make greater use of New York’s open government laws, and to advocate on the issues they editorialize on. One column in the winning submission encouraged readers to submit their own requests—for payroll records, assessment files, contracts, what have you—under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, and explained how to do it in explicit detail. His columns often list the contact information of public officials who might do something about the problem at hand, and direct the readers to let it rip. “Make it simple for ‘em, make it easy,” says Mahoney.
“If we write an editorial and someone gets mad at an official, they’ll go corner them in church,” says Mahoney. “Your county supervisor owns the IGA, and you go in there and he’s sitting in his little chair.”
Doing is something of a trait in Mahoney’s work, which usually conclude with a paragraph using the word “should,” explicitly saying what the local government entity in question should do.
“What good is an editorial where you don’t say what should happen?” asks Mahoney. “I call them Seinfeld editorials: editorials about nothing.”
Mahoney, who began his career at The Post-Star as a nighttime general assignment reporter in 1988, says that the editorial page’s interest in open government issues was “hit or miss” until a few years ago when the paper hired a crop of new, younger, aggressive reporters who made extensive use of the states FOI and open meetings laws.
“These guys are always FOILing stuff, demanding documents, standing up for themselves. And they know when someone’s screwing them,” says Mahoney. “As the reporters do it, the editorials sort of follow on to it. And then the reporters do it some more.”
To mark 2008’s Sunshine Week, the annual journalism industry-wide commemoration designed to draw attention to transparency issues, Mahoney and the Post-Star launched the “Your Right To Know” blog. He says that the blog, which mixes in some national and statewide open government issues, has grown a following, with readers emailing in to share their struggles and triumphs in getting government to respond to their records requests. And while the blog wasn’t part of Mahoney’s Pulitzer entry, it certainly helps define him, as The Oregonian’s Caldwell puts it, as “a one-man wrecking crew for open government.”
The blog is also providing evidence that some local officials are, at a minimum, paying attention. Mahoney tells a story from the recent recount of a couldn’t-be-closer special congressional election that occurred in the paper’s coverage area. As local boards of elections recounted and recanvassed their ballots, one county refused a Post-Star photographer access to the counting room.
“So I wrote something on our blog saying ‘This is B.S.,” remembers Mahoney. “The next day I got a call from the county attorney saying ‘Mark, I looked it up and you’re right. If you want to send a photographer over to be as bored as we are, go ahead.’”