Friday, May 20, 2005

Standard-Times; Why I am Here

In the week before and after the elections, the Standard-Times published some mind-boggling spin on them. I am not one to beef about a paper's right to offer editorial endorsements of candidates, that tradition is too well established. Ideally, it should be kept to the editorial section, but a lot in this world is less than ideal.
First, to clarify my position, I contributed to Lown's campaign before it was known he would have no opposition, and though I do not live in SMD 6, I also contributed a small sum to Farmer's race. As will become evident, I disagree with the Mayor on certain issues, and as her positions become more obvious, I will probably have my disagreements with Farmer, but I did support both this time. Also by way of clarification, this article is not commissioned by, nor has it been discussed with Lown or Farmer, or anyone from either campaign.
This was an unusual election. As far as the Standard-Times was concerned, the elephant in the living room that must be ignored at all costs was the blatantly political motivation behind Mahon's placing the appointed police chief measure on the ballot. The news article reporting that session of Council noted in passing that no further charter amendments could now be brought before the voters for the next two years, but there was no speculation, no follow-up question to Mahon as to his motive for placing this issue at the last legally permissable moment. Yes, it was the last moment, Council had to call a special one item meeting the following Monday to make the state mandated deadline for a second reading approval of adding an item to the ballot.
As the clock ticked down and Mahon did nothing whatsoever to advance the issue he placed before the voters, the Standard-Times continued to tiptoe around the elephant. If the paper ever again mentioned the two year block in a news story, I must have missed it.
During that month Jim Turner and I took such opportunity as we got to point out internal inconsistencies, and variances between city ordinance and state statute in our civil service ordinances. Seems no one had looked closely at this in a long time. Among other things by literal reading of city ordinance we had not had a legal chief election since civil service was established, since our ordinance (effectively contravened and overruled by Texas Statute) forbade any police officer engaging in political activity on behalf of himself or any other elected official!
Both of us were on record as supporting some form of appointment. We pointed out these problems by way of showing that the legal infrastucture which would become very important under an appointive system simply was not ready. To continue the analogy, we were pointing out the ever-growing piles of elephant poop which led me to publically declare before Council that the measure deserved defeat this election.
I suggested we create a charter and ordinance review committee, board, whatever we call it, and once we had all that sorted out, we could in good conscience bring forth a well designed proposal with all the details ironed out. We still had time before Vasquez's term expired to bring a good proposal to the voters and then educate and persuade the electorate, you know, like a real political campaign.
The Sunday before the election the S-T printed its usual blurb for the weekly radio show, "Voices", a local affairs show moderated by the Standard-Times' managing editor Anthony Wilson. According to the Sunday paper May 1, the day of the show, that show would feature both Monte Mahon and Charlotte Farmer discussing their upcoming SMD 6 City Council race. I had to listen to it the second time on AM to be sure I had not missed anything, since Farmer was quite conspicuous in her absence. I cannot say exactly why half the advertised debate was unavailable, but I do know the show is taped earlier in the week. Had he cared to, surely the managing editor carries enough clout at the paper to have had an explanation published on Sunday of why Mrs. Farmer's segment was unavailable.
Midweek before the election the paper ran a front page story headlined "Wrong Direction?". Seems some Council members were shocked, shocked, I say, to see Lown and Farmer running a joint campaign. In the time I have been following Council closely, I do not recall a formal joint campaign, but I have watched different Councils and Council members form into shifting factions and informal alliances over issues and sometimes personalities.
Then in the same news article, Councilman Reeves, who declined to run for reelection, was granted a parting shot worth notice. He contended that Mayor Lown was unduly guided by outside influences, some of which had previously served on Council. Then Reeves continued, "That kid [Lown] hasn't had an original thought in two years." Mind you, this is the same paper which editorially chided Lown as being out of line for stating in a candidate forum that Mahon had made "foolish decisions".
Well, let's see: first Mahon casts the deciding vote for a wildly unpopular water rate hike after blocking less expensive possibilities from consideration; then he cheerfully sacrifices an important charter amendment in a transparant and temporary tactic to embarrass and freeze out a Mayor with whom he has publically feuded for the last term. Having done that Mahon lifts not a finger to even put a little lipstick on this pig, and leaves Matt Lewis and Rudy Izzard to put forth a desperate, last minute, non-binding resolution in an attempt to give it some chance of passage.
Given the election results on both Mahon and the appointed chief measure, it seems possible the voters thought Mahon had made some "foolish decisions".
Back to Reeves' comment; if Reeves is worried that H. R. Wardlaw is tugging the Mayor's puppet strings, why doesn't he come out and say so and back it up? The fact that Wardlaw is close to the Mayor has to rate as the worst kept secret in San Angelo. If you think it is improper, say so and make your case. At least Richard Bastardo, in his editorial submission, had the nerve to come out and say what he meant. My aquaintance with Mr. Bastardo suggests he would be inclined to walk in the living room, kick the elephant in the butt, and tell it to leave and quit pooping all over the floor.
Another poorly kept secret is that Mayor Lown has in mind strengthening the Mayor's office. I have heard the term "limited veto", and some people have speculated Lown would move to make San Angelo a strong mayor city, similar to the measure defeated in Dallas. I have no personal knowledge of such, and repeat these rumors only to set a hypothetical context. If that be the case, why not let it come forth and oppose the real issue headon? The Mayor's popularity notwithstanding, I do not believe the voters would approve a radical restructuring of city government. I cannot see myself being persuaded to such a move.
Now back to the Standard-Times. The week after the election the S-T had some real reaches of editorial analysis. The best single piece has to be Wed. May 11. After avoiding the elephant during the whole campaign, the unsigned lead editorial freely acknowledges the charter amendment as a political tactic. Then, in a twist that would make a good DC spin doctor proud, the S-T states that Lown's lack of leadership on the issue helped prevent its passage! People, I was there when the vote to put appointment on the ballot was taken. Lown expressed his reservations about the timing and poor chance of success, but then, noting his past support of the issue, voted in favor of a motion expessly aimed at doing him political damage. By that act alone, Lown gave the measure as much support as Mahon ever did.
Then, in the same editorial, the S-T claims Lown "did little to boost the passage of the half-cent sales tax". This one leaves me totally baffled. As a leading spokesman against, I was invited to breakfast with the Mayor to discuss the issue. I would describe the session as cordial, but in diplomatese we had a "frank exchange of ideas" with neither being persuaded to the other's view. I know, up close and personal, Lown supported the sales tax. What exactly the paper expected in the way of support from him escapes me. By the nature of the political landscape, Jim Turner and I were set as lead spokesmen for our side, with Matt Lewis and several Chamber of Commerce folk taking the winning position.
One thing about that measure, by the time the vote was held, both sides thought a good contest had been engaged, the winners won honestly, and no hard feelings (well, very few).
Compare that to the "debate" over the appointed chief this time.
Now, back all the way to the title, "Why I am Here". As I stated in the opening, I grant a paper's right to endorse editorially. What I object to is the editorial spilling over into spinning the actual news portions. Nationwide, very few cities have more than one major daily newspaper, the economics of scale involved in putting ink on paper and then dropping that in one's front yard have mandated consolidation nearly everywhere. Before this was true, papers in America more often than openly advocated for one party or the other. It may seem counterintuitive, but that lead to a degree of honesty the press often lacks today.
As an example, I have a book "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates", compiled by Harold Holzer. It is highly regarded by historians since no one at the time thought to arrange for an official transcriptionist. Holzer crawled the stacks of the two leading papers covering the debates, one openly Republican, the other as blatantly pro-Douglas. With each knowing the other was there to keep'um honest, there are amazingly few discrepancies in substance. One paper might note parenthetically a line received "boisterous standing ovation", while the other noted "polite applause", but the words themselves seldom diverge.
With that historical anectdote in mind, in this day of consolidated news organizations, the Blog is rapidly becoming an important news alternative. We hope to put our respective skills together to provide that believable alternative source of information as regards local matters of interest. If anyone else is doing this locally, I am unaware of it. City politics is officially non-partisan, as we attempt to be. I am a Republican functionary of some tenure, while Mr. Turner is an avowed Libertarian who urges me to follow my heart and join his Party.
We both care a great deal for San Angelo. I am as imperfect as anyone, the comments reply here is in place to help you keep us honest. Show me I am wrong and I will 'fess up.
It has never been hard to determine the editorial tilt of the Standard-Times, but this last election we saw more selective reporting of hard news than I recall of late. Laying the defeat of the appointed chief at Lown's feet is analogous to blaming the condemned man for stretching a perfectly good new rope out of shape when we hung him. If you think there is truth in that, clock into us from time to time. We discourage ad hominem attacks, and we encourage citing sources of information, but tell me I'm wrong and show me your case, won't be the first time I've been wrong.

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