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  • Last modified 13 days ago (April 3, 2024)

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Hearing the other side of the story

One of the bits of irritating sand offered as a pearl of wisdom to high school students last week was that being in the newspaper business — like the police business and many others — means you have to have thick skin.

Coverage of tragedies, reported as cautionary tales in hope of saving others from a similar fate, will be protested as insensitive by survivors. Parents will object whether you do or don’t photograph an event, criticizing you either for not showing up or for briefly blocking their view when you do.

Politicians face pretty much the same challenge. Promise to do one thing then instead do another and they’ll be put through the same wringer that tries, but fails, to squeeze the spirit out of journalists and police.

At a meeting Monday, Marion’s new mayor mildly scolded a city official over a relatively minor request to close half a block during a planned event. The request came too late to allow citizens to hear about it at one meeting before it was acted upon at the next. The idea would have been to allow people time to consider and express their opinions.

With this request, there wasn’t enough time to carry the item over. Still, immediately after dealing with the request, the council acted without waiting on two other requests that weren’t so urgent. When this was pointed out during public comment after the decisions were made, the only response from the mayor was that the person mentioning it had a good point.

One of the things newspapers are supposed to do is give voice to those who for one reason or another are rendered voiceless. So, what did the council miss by acting with greater haste than it previously had promised?

The first involved Chingawassa Days. Chingawassa is a huge undertaking each year. Back when I was teaching journalism 550 miles to the east, I occasionally had students work with actual stories from past issues of the Record. In addition to learning far more about Marion, Kansas, than most students ever cared to know, they consistently were impressed by how such a small town could regularly pull off such a big event.

The issue at hand Monday was whether the festival’s relatively new beer garden, typically confined to a crowded section behind the very back of the seating area for concerts, should be expanded to include the entire south half of the park and all concert seating.

Unlike the Record’s famous former editor, E.W. Hoch, I’m not a teetotaler. But I did grow up at a time when events and drinking were separate things. Aside from a few scofflaws with flasks or spiked Thermoses, people attending sporting events, concerts, even restaurant dinners did their drinking elsewhere. In my opinion, not having any form of booze meant you appreciated the event for what it was, not as some opportunity to get buzzed. And getting buzzed isn’t exactly a good thing, as a glance through our weekly jail and offense reports can attest.

I understood things were a bit different than in Carrie Nation’s Kansas when I moved to Milwaukee, beer capital of the world. But even there, you couldn’t buy a brewski in the fourth quarter or after the seventh inning stretch, and one of the most popular innovations among venues was the creation of “family” seating areas, where no beer was allowed.

A core group attending Chingawassa each year are local residents who turn out simply because it’s a community event, not because they love the style of music and certainly not just to get buzzed. Will they react badly to no longer being isolated from less sedate folks sloshing around with cups of beer? That’s the question the council — and Chingawassa organizers — unfortunately didn’t take time to ask.

Next came a proposal to pay for a part-time tourism coordinator — something the community long has needed, proposed by a group that has tried to fill in for an equally needed chamber of commerce.

Over the years, the Record has tried to support the small group calling itself Marion Merchants and has urged more business owners to attend. We were regular attendees ourselves until meetings were moved to Tuesday, our most hectic day, and our available staffing became depleted by raids and staffers’ family situations.

The missing question from council consideration was why pay for an employee that the city won’t supervise. The city definitely could use a part-time tourism coordinator, but why use taxpayer money to pay for a position that serves only the relatively small merchant group rather than others that might also benefit from the position?

Some legal questions also arise. If groups such as Marion Economic Development and Marion Merchants are institutionally linked to using taxpayer money and having even advisory roles in evaluating funding requests, they legally may be viewed as extensions of government and thereby fall under the same rules involving such things as open meetings and open records.

In neither case would hearing the unheard sides of these two issues automatically have changed the council’s decisions Monday, but hearing the other side would have gone a long way toward impressing citizens who too often believe their opinions aren’t considered.

As the mayor pointed out, Marion’s elected and appointed officials by and large are lacking in extensive experience in such roles.

That doesn’t mean great things like announcement of a developer’s plan to build rental duplexes in the valley cannot be heralded. But it does mean every official needs to pay attention to such things as an almost lost comment by the city’s interim administrator that it would be advisable to get an agreement ensuring that the duplexes actually are built before spending city money on a project extending utilities to them and, wisely, to other potential developments in the area.

It may take time before the city gets around, as promised, to revisiting its admittedly flawed charter ordinances and to figuring out that it tends to give employees much greater spending and hiring latitude than other governments do. We need to be patient, but we also need to remind all involved that people are watching to make sure campaign promises are kept.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified April 3, 2024

 

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