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Correcting a serious error

I need to fess up to a serious error I made two weeks ago. When I learned that County Commissioner Dan Holub had launched into a long rant July 31 about a proposed radio tower, I insisted — though it was well past our deadline — that we include in our coverage of the meeting whatever of his rant our reporter could accurately recall.

I specifically asked that our reporter include Holub’s accusation that I had practiced “yellow journalism” and any specific denials he had made about anything that had appeared in our news coverage or editorials.

I figured we needed to own up to whatever criticism he had for us. I honestly hoped that giving him a chance to vent would allow the issue to fade away.

What I didn’t know was that he also had attacked the character of two dedicated members of the Marion Planning and Zoning Commission. In a guest column this week, one of them writes about the attack, which was reported more than a week later in a competing publication.

Had I known the original attacks, I would have insisted that they, too, be included in our coverage. There’s an adage among people who cover local government: If you ever want to really “get” some official, all you have to do is fully and completely report what they say.

We didn’t, but perhaps we should have. Rather than fade away, the controversy has intensified. Not only did we receive the guest column for this week’s paper. Another county official relayed an invitation from Holub for me to appear in person before the commission this week — an invitation I had to decline because I already have returned to my regular job as a college professor.

In his tirade — and those who were there describe it using exactly that word — Holub denied that the county behaved like a spoiled child, then promptly demonstrated the point by behaving exactly that way.

I’m a big boy. I can take a little name-calling — particularly if it’s in the cause of making the community a better place. But there’s no reason for him to have berated two very well informed and dedicated members of the Planning and Zoning Commission for simply doing their job.

Their response to the last-minute addition of the tower to jail plans wouldn’t even have been necessary if the county had done its job in the first place and included the tower in its original request.

They weren’t whining or making themselves out as know-it-alls. And they certainly had no pre-existing bias against the county or the tower. They were, as we are, simply concerned that the city not create a dangerous precedent by bowing to strong-arm tactics of questionable legality, forced on them by an attorney and an outside consultant, both with divided loyalties.

The problem here is not the tower. The problem is what comes after the tower.

I’m not saying the tower is objectionable, but suppose I wanted to put something really disgusting in downtown Marion. I find out there are a whole bunch of laws that might make it illegal, but no one is completely sure. The new precedent is that the only thing I would have to do would be to get the appointed city administrator to say OK. There would have to be an opportunity for appeal, but there would be no requirement that anyone other than me be notified of the appeal process — and why would I want to appeal if he was giving me what I wanted.

That’s not democracy. It’s certainly not the American way that Holub and members of his family have so admirably devoted years of their lives to defending as part of the military. It’s just plain bullying. And the fact that the county had to bring in a bureaucrat from another county as a consultant to railroad it through makes that consultant a hired gun in every way imaginable.

Holub admonished me July 31 that I needed to check things out before putting in the paper rumors about contingency plans to connect the new jail to the current tower, a few feet away. He seems to have forgotten that I asked him that specific question, in front of witnesses, two days before the editorial appeared and that he provided an answer that neither confirmed nor denied the rumor.

Most of the time, I admire Holub’s courageous leadership, and I find him to be an extraordinarily devoted public servant. But in this one case, he’s behaving like a childish bully.

In editorials this summer, we’ve talked about the need to bring civility back to our community. Some would say the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore him. If this involved only me, I might be tempted — as I was two weeks ago — to turn the other cheek. But I can’t stand by and watch others be ridiculed for doing their job and watch pressure tactics be used to set a dangerous precedent.

Likewise, we should avoid jumping to conclusions that Darvin Markley, the neighboring property owner, is appealing the tower decision solely out of personal concern. As a member of the board to which the matter should have been referred, Markley could be appealing primarily to combat the dangerous precedent of rule by administrative fiat.

Whether he should have to recuse himself from consideration of the appeal is unclear. Whatever conflict of interest exists for him might be no more than what exists for fellow board member Margo Yates and zoning administrator Marty Frederickson, both of whom are supervised in one way or another by the person whose action Markley is appealing.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Aug. 15, 2012

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