Minister's Study

Ministering, writing, and wrestling in a land flowing with sweet tea and deep-fried food

Friday, April 06, 2007

And politicians wonder why we don't trust them

One of our Pender County commissioners sold his house and farm a little while back.

Now, it's not normally a big deal when your average Joe sells his place -- hardly the concern of the public, unless we're dealing with an unusual or historically significant property, a newsworthy buyer, or a lot of land/money. And in this case, you've kind of got all three. But it's important for a much bigger reason in this case.

You're not supposed to be a Pender County commissioner unless you live in Pender County, specifically in your district. Now, rumors have been flying since even before the last election that this commissioner wasn't going to finish out his term, but that's all they were -- rumors. So naturally, we didn't print them in a newspaper. It's part of our job to sort out facts from rumors (something I think a lot of national news outlets have forgotten).

But when he sold his property -- that was a fact. So I called him up to ask him about it. He rhetorically asked what business it was of the newspapers, and hung up on me.

Well, it's the business of the newspapers because it's the business of the people if they're about to have a change of representation (and, of course, there are those other three reasons above why it was newsworthy).

This commissioner has family ties to the newspaper, and the paper and he were always very friendly, up until the change in ownership, and he still has friends in the office. Unfortunately, before he and the new owners and editor had a chance to develop a good working relationship, he was involved in leading the Democratic Party's attempt to redistrict the county, and he did it in a way that seriously called into question his openess and honesty.

Now, following that fiasco, myself and the editor actually drove out to his farm and let him tell his side of the story, complete with attacks on a couple of his former allies who kind of changed sides. I wrote the story, and while it was a scoop for us (no other paper really had his side), it was also a real benefit to him to be able to give his side without us challenging his account or allowing his opponents to do so.

Well, fast forward to two papers ago, and he wouldn't speak to me at all about the sale of his property (maybe he forgot how far beyond any reasonable standard of fairness we went for him just a few weeks before). I would have been delighted to run an article with him explaining what was going on and his plans, either to stay there (a possibility, depending on the contract he has with the new owners), live elsewhere in his district (again, permitted -- you don't have to own land in your district to be a representative, just live there), or talk about who he would like to see take over his seat. But he wouldn't speak, which left me with public record facts, like who he sold it to, how much he got, what portion was cash, when the contract was signed, and so on, and then anything I could get from other people.

Now, I could have done a hatchet job on this commissioner, and I suspect papers do this. Since he wouldn't talk to me, I could have assumed that he was up to something under-handed and gone straight to his political enemies for quotes. And boy, would some of them have given them to me.

But I didn't do that. Instead, I called up a lawyer and asked about the legalities of a change of commissioners, and then I called this man's political allies and friends. And I quoted them saying that they expected him to finish his term, think he's a wonderful commissioner and doing a great job.

When we ran the article, I did quote his rhetorical question and say that he hung up on me -- that's all he gave me, and I did use the factual material about the sale of the property, because the story wouldn't have had much meat without it.

While writing that story, some things seemed odd, so I kept looking into the sale of the property, and I heard more rumors, so I kept looking. Turns out the new owners (kind of -- they'd created a whole new company just to buy this place) of the property just finished a hush-hush settlement of a class-action lawsuit for mistreating migrant laborers. And in spite of those reassurances from this commissioner's allies, the new owners said he only had the right to stay in the house until January -- still a year before the end of his term.

Meanwhile, this commissioner called in and cancelled his subscriptions to our paper.

Well, it wouldn't be right to write an article about his plans (or this company he sold his farm to) without asking him -- that's just ethical journalism. So I called him. And basically as soon as we started talking, he started cussing. He accused me of doing a smear job on him (not even close to true), and of letting the cat out of the barn (of course, if everything is aboveboard, why should he care where the cat goes?). He insulted me in the most vulgar and profane of terms, insulted my mother, insulted me some more, and then hung up.

A couple minutes later, a co-worker told me I had a call. I picked it up, and it was the commissioner. He cussed me out some more and invited me out to his farm so he could try to beat me up. Then hung up again. Turning the other cheek was beginning to strain my neck, so maybe it's just as well he didn't have more along those lines to say at that moment.

Then he called back and wanted to speak to the editor. They went at it for a while, with him throwing accusations, apparently most upset that we had published his personal business. (Of course, everything we printed, except the lawyer's explanation and the quotes from his own friends, was all public record, available to anyone who wanted to go to the tax assessor's office and ask.)

And then it turned out that he hadn't even read the article. He had cancelled his subscription, cussed me out, basically threatened me both to me and to my editor, and thrown all manner of accusations at us -- without even reading the whole article that made him so mad or giving me a moment to explain that. I guess he never even knew that I played nice in that article, getting my information from his friends instead of his enemies.

Also in the course of that conversation, the editor tried to find out from him what his plans were as a commissioner. He explained that you don't have to own a place in a district to represent it (true, and I think I made that point in my first article), that his voter registration and taxes were handled here (good point, and something that would almost certainly be looked at in a court case), and then he went into explaining that he had been elected for a four-year term. The editor kept pressing, and he answered, on the record, that he was here "till death do us part."

Well, I wrote the next article, describing the new company (and the guy I talked to seemed pretty decent) and mentioning that although the new owners said he was only contractually allowed to stay in the property until January, he had said that he was there for the duration. Again, I would have loved to have more input from him (and it would have looked very good for him if he had made an on-the-record statement that he knew nothing about the new company's legal difficulties), but all I really had was what he told my editor on the record.

I took off on vacation (another story in itself), leaving the article behind. Then, after we went to press with that (remember, he said "till death do us part" and made a big deal of how he was elected for a four-year term), we found out he resigned. I guess he redid the math on that four-year term.

So where did all this cynicism about politicians come from anyhow? I just can't figure it out.


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