Saturday, June 13, 2009

Circle of Freaks

Government is like a freak show filled with misfits, the botched and the bizarre. There are clowns, deformed conjoined twins, fakirs poking themselves with sharp needles, midgets on stilts, strongmen with bulging biceps, jugglers teetering on unicycles, magicians and conjurers, animal tamers subduing savage beasts and hypnotists mesmerizing the crowd. I function as the ringmaster, presenting this circle of freaks to the public, forging order out of chaos, bringing the masses their show and somehow managing to amaze and entertain.
Every so often, one of the freaks escapes their cages and needs wrangling.
The mayor addressed a citizen’s group last week and claimed “special interest groups” were responsible for lobbying council to approved plastic lit box signs as part of a downtown sign ordinance. The mayor said this went against a focus group that deemed the signs were ugly and tacky.
Needless to say, when I reported this, the downtown business owners who backed the zoning changes weren’t thrilled at being labeled a “special interest group.”
The mayor also blamed council for putting the kibosh on certain zoning changes suggested by the city zoning board. According to the mayor, council allowed themselves to be taken in by these “special interest groups”.
When a council member objected to the mayor’s maverick claims that council should be blamed for not sticking to the zoning board’s recommendations, the mayor relied on a tried and true method of subterfuge: he blamed the media.
Specifically, he discredited my newspaper and to a greater extent me.
The mayor said (and I taped it so I have the exact quote): “I haven’t read the Sentinel. Most weeks understandably I don’t read the Sentinel. Please don’t rely on local papers to convey the whole story in terms of what I say or for that matter what anybody says.”
I am the city reporter. I cover city council and the city government. I’ve been on this beat since 2005 and a professional journalist since 1994. I’ve won five New Jersey Press Association awards for my reporting and cultivated reputations with sources all over town and in various branches of local, state and federal government.
So obviously I wouldn’t know what the fuck’s going on or how to report a story.
Not only doesn’t the mayor read the local paper - which shows a disconnect with events in his own town - but he smugly brags about it. On more than one occasion he’s told groups of citizens that he doesn’t read the paper and has received bemused chuckles of approval. These residents probably enjoy being ignorant and uninformed. Hey, I guess if Rush Limbaugh told them to stick a live barracuda up their asses, there’d be a backorder of barracudas at the local pet shop.
After telling council not to rely on local newspapers to get the story straight, the mayor (who is a lawyer by trade) told council what he really meant – that he used the phrase “special interest groups” to describe certain individuals who have a vested interest in their own properties and undermine zoning for their benefit and that council should not listen to them but think about the needs of the town as a whole.
Just the usual verbal diarrhea from an attorney trying to wriggle his way out of a tight spot via semantics and persuasion. Only problem is, he’s wrong. If he referred to the certain individuals, why’d he use the term “special interest groups”?
The ones who backed plastic lit box signs weren’t lone individuals – they were groups, namely the chamber of commerce and the downtown merchant’s organization, both entities comprised of multiple business owners who were part of the original downtown planning process but were later ignored by the consultant the city hired, the same consultant who recommended the lit box signs were ugly.
The mayor did say “special interest groups.” I taped him saying it. I taped him saying these groups don’t think about the town’s needs when zoning is concerned, just their own.
He’s on the record yet he wants to deny it by claiming the newspaper is a pathetic fishwrapper and not true journalism.
That amounts to him questioning my reputation as a journalist for accuracy and my credibility as a professional. Too often I’ve seen politicians lambaste the media. Sometimes the media deserves the criticism, but most of the time discrediting reporters and news organizations has a sinister agenda. By blaming the media, politicians deflect criticism from themselves, and if they can bolster enough resentment, the public will hate the messenger instead of the politicians. By making the press appear incompetent, the public won’t believe us. When that happens, politicians can get away with murder.
Only problem with the mayor is that nobody believes him. Maybe if he actually read the paper, he'd know that with every story about city government, I make sure to include quotes from him or the city business administrator. Until the meeting where he insulted the newspaper, the mayor and I had a good working relationship, or so I thought.
I'm not claiming infallibility, but council knows my record as a professional. One council member told me that my paper reports “the truth” about what’s going on.
It isn’t just council giving me glowing reviews. Here’s what one police officer said about me (and I taped this so it’s verbatim): “You always take the time to call if you have a question and follow it up before you print it and it’s never anything that’s off on your own tangent. I have faith in the way you present stuff because you present it from a realistic version. You don’t come in with an agenda. You just work with what you’re given and the facts and you present that in a non-biased format. That’s important when you do what you do.”
Police officers traditionally are skeptical of the media and reporters. Yet this police officer understands who I am because of my reputation and developed a strong working relationship with me because of it.
Last week I wrote a feature about a New York City artist who visited town. I never met him before, so he didn’t know anything about my writing ability or competence as a reporter. However, after he read the paper he sent me the following text: “Hi Eric – The piece looks great. Thanks so very much. Don’t hesitate to reach out in the future.”
Two complements in one week to a reporter from a newspaper the mayor said couldn’t be trusted.
Throughout my career, I’ve interviewed mayors who were so idiotic you wondered how they dressed themselves in the morning. I’ve covered meetings with mayors who were abominable tyrants, who could barely articulate a sentence, who ran their crooked little fiefdoms like tin pot dictators. I’ve seen the underbelly of Cape May County and experienced the corruption, the favoritism, the entrenched partisan cronyism doled out to the most mediocre people who were rewarded the most important positions.
However, despite the rogues gallery of elected officials I’ve met at the southern end of the county, this mayor is by far the worst elected official for this one reason: he’s a lawyer first and a human being second. He’s in lawyer mode all the time: shrewd, Machiavellian, calculating, scheming. He must beat his adversaries at all costs, unapologetically ploughing through his objectives and offering little to no compromise. His prime directive is to win every argument despite the lessons losing could teach him. There’s no humility, no connection with anyone other than his own power circle, and it shows in a stiff, almost uncomfortable demeanor at public events when the topic of conversation switches over to himself. He’s ego personified. Devoid of humbleness, filled with spite and rancor, he phones members of council and chastises them instead of offering reconciliation.
I’m not writing this to brow-beat him. I’m writing this to make him a better mayor. Unlike the slugs dwelling in the southern end of the county, this guy is intelligent. He could have an 11th hour conversion, an Ebenezer Scrooge plagued by his inner demons, a man who realizes there’s no shame in changing.
The reason the mayor ignores the Sentinel is because I’m not like other reporters. I write investigative pieces and don’t back down from the hard stories. A well-entrenched businessman once asked me why our paper publishes “stories that are critical to the administration.”
It’s because that’s how we serve the public’s best interest. If you had an administration trying to hide something from the public, shouldn’t the public have a right to know about it? Isn’t a well-informed citizenry more educated and just better than an ignorant one?
The mayor’s criticism only gave me more resolve and determination to excel at my profession.
So in an odd way his condemnation is a veiled complement.

1 comment:

OCNJ_guy said...

You've got this guy figured out and describe him perfectly. He'a a petty, nasty egomaniac. He just gives the impression he's tired of the whole mayor thing. And he's flabbergasted whenever someone disagrees with him. To make matters worse he hired an inexperienced clown for city administrator. NOw there's a guy who vever met a photo op he didn't like. You're a good writer - how do you like his junior high press releases? Nice grammar.