Ethics Complaint

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MTT News's picture
By: 
Michelle Phillips

Several people have asked me why we did not report the name of the city employee involved in a recent ethics complaint. I have also gotten the question of why we did not release information from the complaint. Since I have fielded so many calls and emails about the coverage in the Middleton Review, I decided to address it here. 

First, I want to say that we have known about the complaint since it was filed on Dec. 20, 2019. In addition, we have had a copy of the complaint since that time, and we knew the name of the employee accused of the violation. Why didn’t we write about those things, you ask? It’s quite simple; an attorney advised against it.

Because this is considered an employee disciplinary measure, the attorney told me that we could be sued for publicly naming the employee. In addition, the document was leaked to me and the person who leaked it refused to be used as a source in a story.

I was a little stunned last week when I filed an open records request to learn how George Zens , editor and publisher of the Middleton Review, came about this information, and I found out that an employee in the city’s HR department freely provided the information when Zens asked. This, in and of itself, could probably be considered a separate ethics complaint because the Ethics Committee went into closed session to discuss an employee complaint. This means the information is considered confidential.

Once I saw the story in the Middleton Review the question came up of whether or not we should print the employee’s name involved in the ethics complaint. I was very leery about doing so because of the closed session meeting. So I was back on the phone with the attorney, who advised me that even though the cat was out of the bag, we could still be sued for publishing the employee’s name. Therefore, I decided we would let it pass by.

Sometimes running a newspaper means that you have to make hard decisions rather than just sensationalizing an issue, which I have also been accused of over the years. (If you work in journalism long enough, you will be.) Sometimes you have to sit on a story, knowing full well it may never come to fruition. This, in my opinion, and that of the attorney, was one of those times.

Another example of this is the story about students being bullied at Kromrey that we ran a few months ago. I had about a dozen and a half parents contact me about their children being bullied at Kromrey, some as long as 10 or more years ago. Most of the parents didn’t want to go on record, and although they were frustrated that we were not writing a story about it, I needed sources and evidence.

Those finally came when parents decided it was time to go to the school board with their concerns. This came about after one of the children being bullied was videotaped as her bully hit her in the face at Kromrey. For at least six months I had known this was happening, but had nothing to back it up.

It is very frustrating for me and my writers to have to keep a lid on something like the ethics complaint or bullying problem. Of course our first instinct is to blow up the story, but sometimes that is irresponsible and can end up doing more harm than good. 

If you are concerned about the ethics violation and its contents, you too can file an open records request with the City of Middleton. It simply has to be stated as an open records request specifying the documents and time frame for which you are seeking information. It must be in writing, but an email qualifies as a written request.

I cannot say how the story about the ethics complaint will shake out in the end. I can only say that it is more important for me to maintain my own ethics and that of our publication than sell a few extra papers. Once a publication loses its integrity, it loses its credibility, and that is not a price I am willing to pay.

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