Much of Augusta was surprised and saddened to hear of Augusta Commissioner Joe Jackson’s resignation last week.
But considering the devastating loss of his wife to cancer earlier this year, it is completely understandable why Jackson may need to concentrate more time at home with his daughter and two sons.
This week, Augusta commissioners unanimously voted to fill Jackson’s position with District 6 Commissioner-Elect Ben Hasan, who was already scheduled to take the seat in January.
It makes perfect sense that Hasan should assume the District 6 seat.
He was elected by the people of that district in a July runoff to serve them, so the commission was wise to appoint him.
However, as Hasan assumes his role as commissioner, he needs to seriously consider a nagging issue that many people in the community seem to have simply ignored: Should Hasan still serve as publisher of Urban Pro Weekly while he is an elected official?
Now, there is definitely nothing morally wrong or illegal about Hasan serving on the Augusta Commission and keeping his role as publisher at Urban Pro Weekly.
It is a question of ethics.
For instance, on the cover of last week’s issue of Urban Pro Weekly is the headline “Nowhere to hide: Commissioners have no stomach for tax hike, but no plan ‘B.’”
All right, now if Hasan was sitting up there on the commission during that same tax hearing, do Augustans really believe that headline would remain the same?
Maybe, but probably not.
And if it did, how do you think Hasan’s new colleagues on the commission would feel about his paper’s view on the issue?
Augusta politics can get ugly quick. Real quick.
Now, Hasan can always say that while he is the founder and publisher of Urban Pro Weekly, long-time local journalist Frederick Benjamin Sr. serves as the editor.
Therefore, it could be argued that Benjamin is responsible for the editorial content and Hasan handles the business side of the paper.
But anyone who believes that has never stepped foot inside a newspaper.
A publisher runs the show. He or she is the captain of the ship.
People can claim they are separate, but, the truth is, they’re not.
So, what will happen when a controversial issue comes before the commission and Hasan doesn’t get the support he wants?
What will be the headline that week?
Then, of course, there is the issue of closed-door meetings.
Hasan is an elected official and will naturally be sitting in on legal meetings that members of the press are not allowed to attend.
What about that?
Let’s just say, there is a pretty good chance that Urban Pro Weekly will have some major scoops in its paper the next four years.
Hopefully, Hasan may listen to the advice of local attorney David Hudson, who is a leading authority on the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
During a December 2013 meeting of the Georgia Press Association in Atlanta, Hudson reportedly said elected officials do not give up their First Amendment rights to free speech simply because they hold office or because they participate in an executive session of a governing body, according to a report by the Transparency Project of Georgia.
“From time to time, elected officials such as city council members, county commissioners, school board members or appointed members of the board of government authorities will receive advice (usually a lawyer representing the public entity) that the public official may not disclose information learned in a closed session,” Hudson said. “Such advice has no basis in fact or in law… Elected officials are subject only to the voters.”
Hudson reportedly explained that none of the provisions in the Code of Ethics contained in Georgia law, O.C.G.A 45-10-3, prohibit an “elected or appointed member from disclosing what occurred in an executive session if the member felt it was in the public interest to do so.”
Hudson’s opinion goes against what members of the Augusta Commission have been told for years by the city’s law department.
If that’s the case, Hasan is free to openly share all of his inside information with the public and other members of the press, if he wishes.
That could make things very interesting.
But, regardless, Hasan needs to sit down and think about his role as publisher of Urban Pro Weekly.
Any voice in Augusta is a valuable one and this Insider column isn’t about the Metro Spirit trying to attack another newspaper.
This is an issue of how a newspaper, owned by an elected official, will present information to the public.
It’s a concern.
For example, there is an article in last week’s Urban Pro Weekly about Jackson’s resignation.
The paper says that Hasan is “prepared to step in if it is the will of the commission.”
And yet, Hasan didn’t return The Augusta Chronicle’s calls or emails regarding his position on the matter.
It’s no secret that Hasan has personally told members of the local media, including a Metro Spirit reporter, that he is not going to comment on any issues relating to the commission for a full three months after taking office.
Hasan says he wants to sit back and observe before publicly commenting.
That’s all well and good until quotes start popping up in his own paper.
Especially when the paper doesn’t always identify Hasan as the publisher of Urban Pro Weekly in its own articles.
So, as a member of the media, Hasan needs to either speak his mind to everyone or stick to his pledge of not speaking to the press at all.
Of course this week, Hasan didn’t have a choice but to speak to the press because they surrounded him as soon as he cast his very first vote on the commission to raise property taxes.
It is definitely going to be an interesting few years for Hasan.
Let’s just say, Hasan has a lot to think about: His paper, his future political position and how the two may impact each other down the road.
It’s a delicate situation that Hasan shouldn’t take lightly.