KALAMAZOO, MI MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette journalist Brad Devereauxs work on issues of public transparency has been recognized with the prestigious First Amendment Award from the Associated Press Media Editors.
Devereaux was announced as the winner during the APME boards annual meeting Wednesday, April 14, held over Zoom. This is Devereauxs second time winning the organizations First Amendment Award, having secured it five years ago for reporting on a police department in Saginaw County.
As a whole, MLive Media Group reporters, photographers and videographers won 51 awards in this years APME contest for work published in 2020.
Related: MLive Media Group wins 51 AP awards for 2020 coverage
Earning Devereaux the First Amendment Award win this year was a series of stories published on MLive.com and in the Kalamazoo Gazette detailing a long-held practice among Kalamazoo city commissioners to routinely meet behind closed doors, in advance of public meetings, to discuss issues on the upcoming agendas.
There is nothing more gratifying to a journalist than performing the watchdog role on behalf of our readers and communities, said John Hiner, vice president of content for MLive Media Group. Its gratifying that the Gazettes efforts to compel transparency in government were recognized with this honor.
The series, titled Kalamazoos Closed-Door Meetings, in its entirety:
Those subquorum meetings, Devereaux discovered, had been held for decades in Kalamazoo with few, if any, questioning the practice. Legal experts say the meetings, held with fewer than a quorum of city commissioners present, cut citizens out of key discussions and likely violated Michigans Open Meetings Act.
Devereaux, 36, of Kalamazoo, knew as the reporter responsible for covering Kalamazoo City Hall that he had a duty to be there on the publics behalf.
They kept the door shut on me and anyone else not invited to attend, he said.
Devereaux used the Freedom of Information Act to seek documentation on the meetings, as well as discussing their history, purpose and legality with officials, citizens and experts alike.
When the meetings were questioned, elected officials were quick to point out the city attorney said they were legal, Devereaux said. I was given conflicting information about what was happening at the private meetings. There were no minutes taken, so the only information about what happened was in the minds of the attendees.
Documents he received in response to his FOIA request detailed topics for prior closed-door meetings, which ran the gamut of controversial local issues. Among them was discussion of a recent change in holiday decorations that caused some in Kalamazoo to criticize the citys new Candy Cane Lane.
If candy canes are too controversial to talk about in public, what else are you talking about behind closed doors? Devereaux asked. And why?
The closed-door meeting discussion included much more than candy canes: public safety issues, protests, recreational marijuana rules, and hundreds of other topics. To me, these sound like discussions the public should be allowed to hear.
The stories not only highlighted a government transparency issue previously unknown to most Kalamazoo residents; they also drove change.
A city commissioner critical of the long-held practice, after talking with Devereaux about the issue, proposed the city change the format to ensure public access. Officials discussed the proposal and ultimately voted in favor of replacing the private, small-group meetings with public Committee of the Whole meetings now being held regularly.
Related: Kalamazoo commissioners will test out public meetings to replace closed-door sessions
City residents can now watch the meetings to see detailed presentations from city staff and discussion of issues that, previously, would have been out of reach for all but those invited to the subquorum meetings.
Few things are more central to the mission of journalism than serving as a check on our governments and on all those who hold power, said Mark Tower, news leader for MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette. We stand for everyday people their eyes and ears as well as their voice. From the instinct and tenacity that spurred his initial questions and FOIA requests to the execution of the stories, Brad Devereauxs work is a clear example of that core mission.
The Michigan APME First Amendment Award, according to the organization, recognizes individuals and news organizations that made a distinguished contribution on behalf of the First Amendment or Freedom of Information and work done to overcome obstacles on behalf of the unrestricted flow of information vital to a free society.
In 2016, Devereaux won APMEs First Amendment Award for his coverage of reserve police officers in the Saginaw County village of Oakley. He used the Freedom of Information Act to report the story, even as village officials threw up roadblocks and legal action ensued.
The series of more than 50 articles, titled Small Town, Big Problem, detailed ongoing legal and insurance problems for the small village related to its large force of reserve police officers.
In recognition of his work on that series, Devereaux also won the State Bar of Michigans Wade H. McCree Award for the Advancement of Justice.
Devereaux, a Romeo-area native, graduated from Romeo High School in 2002. In 2007, he graduated from Western Michigan University with a journalism degree.
Devereaux has worked as a reporter for MLive.com and the Kalamazoo Gazette as well as The Saginaw News, and also worked as news editor for the Lovell Chronicle in Lovell, Wyoming.
In addition to the First Amendment Award, Devereaux and MLive multimedia specialist Joel Bissell together won first place for Best Illustration or Graphic, for a GIF they created to show how high water and other forces have shrunk beaches in South Haven and elsewhere.
Elsewhere in the 2020 Michigan APME contest, Kalamazoo Gazette was recognized with a first place win in the Spot News category, for coverage of summer protests and unrest in Kalamazoo.
Judges had high praise in their comments.
Simply outstanding balanced coverage and a great team effort, judges wrote. Staff members did not stand on the sideline but put themselves in the middle of this unrest, which allowed readers to see and feel and the tension and passion that boiled over into the streets.
The Kalamazoo Gazette also one second place for best digital presence in its division, and multimedia specialist Joel Bissell received a third place award for Best Feature Photo.
More from MLive:
Kalamazoo airport zip-ties valve shut after PFAS firefighting foam spilled
Kalamazoo homeless encampment doubles in size after Mills Street site vacated
A mask shouldnt have a political party, says GOP leader who thinks he caught COVID-19 at Republican meeting
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