Aug 11, 2010

Newspaper fails to act as watchdog on GOP good ole boy network

There is no doubt newspapers are in trouble, but the one job they do better than almost any other medium is to sit through a sometimes boring township, village or city council meeting to act as a watchdog on local government and tell the public what is going on. The Livingston County Daily Press & Argus failed, again, miserably at that task, based on a follow up in today’s edition on the possibility of some local townships defaulting financially.

Judy Daubenmier, the Chair of the Livingston County Democratic Party, issued a press release last week on the fact that several local townships may default on several local water- and sewer-assessment bonds backs by the county, and because of that county taxpayers may have to bail them out. The press release prompted a story, but it appeared the newspaper chose more to smear Daubenmier and sensationalize the story than act as a watchdog.

The county’s financial reports have failed to alert the public to the fact that townships are in danger of missing their payments for the $101 million in principal and interest backed by the county, and Daubenmier called for the all-Republican Livingston County Commission to hold a town hall meeting explaining the issue to the public. The $101 million should have been the lead of the story the paper published, but instead the paper chose a quote buried near the bottom of the press release as their lead.

The lead of the article was, “The head of the Livingston County Democratic Party said county commissioners "acted like a bunch of socialists" when they backed water-, road- and sewer-assessment bonds local townships haven't been able to repay.”

Not only was it sensationalized, it was inaccurate. I understand that headlines and leads are designed to get people to read the article, but it still must be accurate. Here’s the full quote from the press release:

“Republicans like to talk about free market principles, but in this case they acted like a bunch of socialists,” Daubenmier said.

The board offices and the newspaper office are almost right across the street on Grand River Avenue in Howell, yet it took the national business publication Bloomberg to break this story. That story called “Bond Defaults Stalk Wealthiest Michigan Communities as Development Crashes,” appeared way back on June 23, but the newspaper of record does not have a similar story until August, and only after being led to it by Daubenmier.

The paper had a chance to redeem itself with a follow-up almost a week later, but it failed miserably. Basically, it let board chair Maggie Jones spout some talking points without ever challenging her.

She claims that the county was diligent with bond projects, and that the board had no way of foreseeing the near collapse of Detroit's Big Three automakers or the housing-market crash that has left half of Livingston County's townships holding the bag for sewer and water districts where growth didn't occur. That is a debatable issue that may or may not be true, but at the very least the county should hold a town hall meeting to let the public know about the problem.

But this statement from the county administrator really illustrates the problem.

“County Administrator Belinda Peters on Tuesday said she didn't have immediate access to data showing which townships have debt from county-backed assessment bonds; when the county pledged its AA bond rating to them; how much is owed on each outstanding county-backed bond; and when the bonds were issued.”

Seriously? And you let her get away with that answer?

Jones went on to claim that just because the county met the legal obligation of posting board meetings it negates the need for a townhall meeting, but if the paper missed the story, how can the public be expected to catch it?

One thing is clear: the Livingston County Board of Commissioners needs an independent voice to, if nothing else, act as a watchdog on the GOP good old boy's network because the newspaper is not going to do it.


carraig said...

I was shocked when Belinda Peters said she couldn't provide the list of townships and amounts owed.

I can only hope she was misquoted. And that it was simply a matter of it not being on hand at that meeting.

Communications guru said...

I can only hope she was misquoted. And that it was simply a matter of it not being on hand at that meeting.

That’s good to hear, but I don’t think this was a meeting story. The county board meets on Monday evenings, and that means if Jones’ comments were made at the meeting, the reporter still had all day Tuesday to get the figures from Peters. Not only that, but Peters was the budget director before being promoted.