The scandal that wasn’t
Newspapers are strange animals — almost as strange as governmental bodies they cover. Often, stories we spend the most time working on are stories that get the least ink in print.
While we normally leave such tidbits on the pile of news we decide for good reason not to report, some inkling might prove instructive.
Our week began, while working on last week’s paper, with requests — not terribly polite — that we ignore statements made in not one but two public meetings about the city receiving an offer on a largely vacant building, which officials bristle when we refer to as a white elephant.
Were we to report the offer, we were told, we would condemn a hugely important deal and saddle the city with financial burden. Although we chose to do as requested, with no traditional promise of exclusivity in return, conversation quickly devolved into allegations that we were unethical blackmailers and bullies.
A few days later, the offer — ultimately revealed to be for $100,000 less than the city’s investment — was publicly tabled without action. All the fury and threats appeared for naught, but the lack of trust that they revealed — and engendered — set the stage for what was to come.
After being the only member of the public to listen to 11 hours of dire projections about budgetary woes, we received a tip from a usually diligent insider, who had failed to attend those discussions, suggesting irregularities in a city bidding process.
Evidence seemed compelling, leaving us no choice but to check it out. Word of our investigation quickly leaked, and in the few minutes it took us to arrange meetings, all evidence had been neatly arrayed for presentation.
Although we obtained an obligatory “gotcha” quote, hinting of the possibility of a special prosecutor, the proof of no wrongdoing, while not definitive, was persuasive. Despite occasionally being shouted at during a contentious session after Monday’s council meeting, we chose not to report the story because, in the end, we did not believe it.
In any situation, someone has to be the first to trust, and we decided it might as well be us. That may sound as if we’re making ourselves out to be noble and blaming city officials. We’re not. On the crazy merry-go-round of Marion politics, no one is totally right, and no one is totally wrong. The problem is, no one seems to listen to or respect anyone else.
Democracy is an untidy form of government. Out of a cacophony of dissenting views, compromise and insight are supposed to emerge. These days, unfortunately, lines in the sand too often become so deeply drawn that neither side listens to the other. Instead of compromise, all we get is recrimination. It’s true in Marion. It’s equally true in Congress.
We could have reported a potential scandal — a Bidding-Gate, if you will — further splitting an already divided council, then sat back and watched as two opposing sides, who alternatively view themselves as pro-progress and anti-waste, battled without listening over a piece of expensive machinery that is used less than three hours a week.
Or we could have forgotten the scandal-that-wasn’t, and proposed, as we did, saving money by sharing the seldom-used equipment with other governmental units with similar needs. The silver lining in the storm clouds of distrust and recrimination is that city officials now are going to look into that idea — an ultimate compromise between progressives and cost-cutters that results only after a very untidy series of recriminations.
It’s a confusing and sometimes frustrating system, but it’s a system that can work, provided everyone — the press, the public and politicians on both sides — accept that no one is evil and that no one’s interests and opinions should be categorically ignored or distrusted, and that no one deserves to be caught in “gotcha” moments.
In Marion, battle lines almost always are drawn between people who are perpetually positive and those accused of always saying “no.” Truth is, the world isn’t black and white, good and evil. It’s not about emphasizing the positive and ignoring the negative. It’s about being respectful and learning from both, even when it proves uncomfortable. Respect must go both ways. We’ve tried everything else. Let’s try that for a change.
— Eric Meyer