I can't let last night's BOCC meeting go, by the way, without a comment near and dear to my heart -- the concerns raised by Commissioners over the scrutiny they've faced in recent weeks from the media, particularly the professional journalists covering Durham for the Indy and other outlets.
Commissioners Joe Bowser and Michael Page, and to a slightly lesser extent Brenda Howerton, minced few words in criticizing project opponents and the media last night for their campaign against the project and the reporting that's surrounded it, respectively.
The commishes seemed to play off comments from lobbyist and former Durham Chamber chair Steve Toler and the Chamber's public policy director John White, who both criticized what they called "innuendo" surrounding the 751 case. Page thanked them for their comments and seemed to pivot off them as he made his statements.
Page certainly had every right to denounce accusations he and his colleagues have decried as false.
But if I may, Mr. Chairman, there was a tone-deafness to your rebuke of the pro-jo's in the audience.
And as a concerned citizen, I'd ask you to think again about the role of the media, why they matter -- and how you and other officials can and should respond to the kind of investigations you complained about last night.
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By way of background: as the commissioners revealed publicly during the meeting, reporters from at least two outlets (the Indy and, we imagine, the Herald-Sun) have been sniffing around allegations that one or more of the commissioners in the majority on 751 received unspecified benefits from the developer team for their support.
It was a quid pro quo allegation that's been in the rumor mill, and one that BOCC'er Becky Heron attacked head-on when she asked commissioners to disclose any compensation or incentives they may have received from the applicants.
For the record: BCR's heard the rumors, too. As I've told at least one reader who asked, we've not printed anything here at BCR on them because they've been simply that, rumors, and without any corroboration; they're mentioned here for the first time because the commissioners placed them in the public eye and discussed them in a public meeting, and because they were at the center of last night's debate.
As of this writing, no news outlet has run any stories corroborating or supporting the rumors, and it's there the matter sits for now at least, perhaps forever.
(And to those who wonder about my constant refrain on why we need professional journalists like Jim Wise, Ray Gronberg and Samiha Khanna working full-time as news gatherers, it's because it takes that level of time investment and resources to try to dig into such a story. It's for the good of the public that we have professional journalists reporting the stories, replete with ethical standards, editing practices, and a career to lose if they screw up.)
Taking the word of Bowser, Howerton and Page that the rumors are false, it is no surprise where frustration for the three commissioners is coming from.
After all, as Howerton said, she came on the board to serve the community, not for financial gain. It's not hard to see where anyone in elected office would be upbraided by "innuendo" that turned out to have no basis in fact.
So, I'm sympathetic to how Page and his colleagues must have felt to have these stories swirling about, and to have Becky Heron call them out on the question after the public hearing.
With that said, I took exception to the anger Page showed towards the media, even addressing them directly with line of sight as he called out reporters for digging into his church and personal affairs.
Chairman Page, respectfully: a core mission of the local media is to be the public watchdog.
Calling members of the media irresponsible for digging into claims made by skeptics misses an important point: in a democracy, anyone who steps onto the dais is agreeing to hold themselves to a higher standard, and to recognize that their lives will be open to far more scrutiny than if they were remaining a private citizen.
That's why public figures like elected officials are known as, you know, public figures.
I am happy to take the three Commissioners at their word.
But they'll certainly understand: in a world where Mike Easley is in front of a grand jury and we're still tainted by scandal after scandal in the General Assembly, the public expects their media to dig in anytime there's even a hint of wrong-doing.
Frankly, anytime you have accusations or rumors of impropriety, the light that good reporters can shine on those accusations is not a harsh incandescent of interrogation -- it's as cleansing and purifying as a UV light.
If after all the media digging that Page, Bowser and Howerton complained about last night there have been no substantiations in the press, and if no substantiations follow, then terrific. That's the public's greatest surety against wrongdoing in the public sphere.
Mr. Page, I don't worry about your leadership or that of other politicians when I hear rumors that turn out to false. In the line of blogging work I'm in, I hear rumors and smoke-blowing about pols and citizens all the time.
I do worry, categorically, when public officials carp on the media for doing what we damn well pay them to do.
Yes, I can understand your frustration at the rumor mill. But there would have been a more politic -- pun intended -- way to handle the frustration.
One could have said, quite simply, "There have been accusations floating around that public officials have not been acting above-board in the matter at hand. I and some of my fellow commissioners have faced scrutiny from the media over these matters. I forcefully denounce the rumors and innuendo that have surrounded this process, and while I feel it is unwarranted, I welcome scrutiny by the media into my dealings in this and any matter, as I have always conducted myself to the letter and spirit of the expectations of ethical conduct.
Mr. Page and fellow commissioners, the content on BCR is copyrighted. But I grant you a perpetual license to use these words or their derivatives.
You can thank me later.
Just as the public at large will thank elected officials to remember that when it comes to what our mutual great-grandma Becky Heron likes to call "shenanigans," the role of professional, full-time journalists is to do the digging to make sure fair play is taking place.