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By Scott Sullivan


A Better Way

It was an easy call to end printing the endless unpaid endorsement letters we were getting. It is also easy for me not to take partisan sides on issues.

Small newspaper editors are often their main reporters, photographers, layout artists and so on. When I report I must be as objective and fair as possible.

Columnists have more latitude in what are marked as opinion sections. Here, I endorse no candidate, but a process. It:

  • Respects and is civil to people of all views and from all backgrounds.
  • Is fact-based and multi-sourced.
  • Does not use ad hominem attacks to inflame, defame or divert attention from important issues.
  • Doesn’t introduce people with subjective labels — “Embattled/Controversial/ Popular/Respected So-and So” — so you know upfront who the good and bad guys will be in the one-sided article sure to follow.
  • Does not use anonymous sources to trash named people. Want to hold someone accountable? Be that way yourself.

When a reporter says “a source who has asked to remain unnamed, citing fear of reprisal” claims two of his weekly whipping boys were college fraternity brothers, what does that have to do with the discussion about key issues we should be having?

I asked the two parties named — or “accused” — in this piece directly. One went to Michigan State and was in a fraternity, the other to Grand Valley State and was not, they told me.

The “reporter” double-stacked the deck. First, he asserted a claim that may not be factual. Second, he implies his source may be subject to reprisal from the named parties he or she may have spread false rumors about.

If you have issues with public officials and want to recall them for how they have handled, or in your opinion mishandled duties they were elected to do, that’s fine. Our system allows for such checks and balances.

The Saugatuck Township recall group got enough signatures and is running a slate of replacement candidates. Whether or not you agree with the recall itself, that’s what our process allows. They did things the right way.

The process breaks down when parties resort to ad hominem attacks, circulating rumors and name-calling. That applies to all sides. Use such means towards your ends, results will be toxic too.

I’ve heard dark conspiracy theories both ways. Would it be politics if there weren’t those? Yes, people sharing like ends will strategize.

Further, people who work together — including ones in our city halls, who get re-elected year in and year out for some reason — learn to be collegial. I would hope they would. Don’t like what you think are the “good ol’ boys”? Vote them out.

Should the township videotape its meetings to post on its website, especially when offered free? Absolutely. So should the cities. Douglas and Saugatuck cities both did so once, but ceased years ago for some reason. To city officials who criticize the township for not doing what they should too, I say pot meet kettle.

The fire district posts meeting videos on its website, most times promptly. Maybe I’m like you: I have other commitments, not the least of them being my family, and can’t attend every meeting. I find what the fire district does is valuable and applaud it.

I’m among the majority not embroiled in advancing a pre-set agenda. Show me by being willing to learn from new information — times change — and adapt when it makes sense, even while hewing to your base principles. Based on that, we can work together instead of fighting among ourselves, and can move ahead.

I’ve been on the ground many times with our firefighters and seen what they do. Thank God the calamities — car wrecks, drownings, grass-fire arsons, dealing with storm damage, cats trapped in attics — are rarities for most of us. Not them. I’d expect and want our trained first responders to advocate for the best public safety possible.

Of course, economics — the dismal science that studies scarcity — says we can’t have everything. If an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure, how about a ton of prevention for an ounce of cure? Who decides the tipping point?

Checks and balances can drag out the process endlessly. Employed in good faith by all sides, most often the outcome works.

The best way is through a process that is honest, respectful, civil and fact-based. Let’s work together to solve problems, not make more of them.

The only political system worse than ours is all others. No government is better or worse than its people. This means voters, officials and media.

I write a lot of stuff tongue in cheek. It is good we can laugh at ourselves. Sometimes my efforts come off as too sharp, and I regret that. Public figures, myself included, are the easiest ones to tease, but teasing should stop shy of condemnation.

I admire and respect my fellow citizens who run for and hold local offices. Don’t mistake critical letters from others, or critics quoted in stories I write that strive to present the other side, for my attitude.

Local representatives put in God knows how many hours of work to inform themselves, sit through meetings and deliberate on issues that, no matter how they decide, are sure to bring criticism. The pay for all this is paltry. The power and prestige? Yeah, right …

If you dare the arena, you’ll take your shots —some fair, others less so, a handful ludicrous. Newspaper editors are not exempt — nor should be.

If you want to do something that matters for your community, realize no good deed goes unpunished. So by all means, do it. You will be OK in my book.