Eye on this publication: confessions

By Susan Gibbs

Recently, I have written several editorials that I am told some have found controversial or offensive, or worse, written because I hold personal grudges.

Controversial, I agree with. Offensive, perhaps. But motivated by grudges, not at all.

Allow me to explain.

In his book about The New York Times titled “The Kingdom and the Power” Gay Talese writes: “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places. The sane scene that is much of life, the great portion of the planet unmarked by madness, does not lure them … gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.”

Now, while Eye on Greene is by no means The New York Times, is, in fact, not even a newspaper, I have had some experience reporting for newspapers, both dailies and weeklies, most recently for the Greene County Record. In addition, prior to entering the news field, I directed communications for a national corporation, and even had a bit of radio broadcasting and television field production experience under my belt.

Truth be told, none of the entities I have worked for can be compared to The New York Times, but the concept expressed by Talese pretty much sums things up.

While I don’t consider myself a restless voyeur, I have been in this field long enough to have seen a few warts on the world, imperfections of people and places, and sometimes a little madness.

Talese also writes, “… the journalist is the important ally of the ambitious; he is a lamplighter for stars. He is invited to parties, is courted and complimented, has easy access to unlisted telephone numbers and to many levels of life.”

This is also true, along with his observation that journalists will sometimes mistakenly assume that it is charm, not usefulness, that gains such privilege, but that most journalists are realists “not fooled by the game.”

Not only do I consider myself a realist not fooled by the game, I never put my fingers to a keyboard before running my thoughts by others of my ilk, and follow that by checking with sources.

Sources — anonymous or otherwise – are people with whom I have developed relationships who tell me what I want to know, rather than what they want me to hear. Among other things, they provide me with the perspective of a particular group that might fear retribution for expressing certain opinions in the press.

I don’t go looking for scandals and I don’t “hype up” stories. In fact, I much prefer writing warm and fuzzy feel-good feature stories that are easy to sell and pay enough to earn one a living. It was such stories I was hoping to stick to when I started working for the Record back in early 2006.

But then imperfections, and maybe a little madness, combined with a series of editors, and the fact that I was the only reporter working for that publication, started getting in the way of my simple ambition.

Again, allow me to explain:

When I first started reporting for the Record, three of those who first approached me were: Don Pamenter, president of the Stanardsville Area Revitalization (*STAR*) project; his wife,  Jackie Pamenter, president of the Greene County Historical Society, seeking publicity for her project; and Carl Schmitt, seeking support for his efforts to downsize the county’s growth area and control development.

That was okay, because, as stated above, it’s all part of the game.

The approaches by the Pamenters were understandable. Seeking publicity for a project prior to applying for grant moneys is standard procedure. Both of the Pamenters were heading up projects for which they were seeking grants, and besides, they were not alone in their efforts. I wrote stories that could have been submitted with grant applications about Janet Call’s Greene Care Clinic, as well as for Trish Crowe’s Blue Ridge Foothills Conservancy.

As for Schmitt: he was making himself known by the time I arrived, raising a ruckus that year at supervisors’ meetings, calling for the institution of land control measures, virtually accusing developers of destroying the county’s rural quality of life, and thereby making news that I was responsible for reporting.

But then imperfections started getting in the way of straight reporting.

Once again, allow me to explain.

The last time I checked, we were living in a Democratic society, of which Greene County is a part. Any citizen with a project to push is free to take it before the board of supervisors, just as any citizen with an axe to grind is free to file a complaint. These processes are simple.

By the same token, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to report the news, as that process is also simple.

All that is required to write a thorough story are the answers to six basic questions – who, what, when, where, why, and how – sprinkled with a few relevant quotes.

It’s when those processes are bypassed or when those six basic questions are not answered clearly that a reporter’s ears perk up, and mine did just that in the late spring of my first year here, when, as it happened, my personal interests unintentionally collided with my professional responsibilities.

Having at one time been a member of a cooperative– a community-owned store that focuses on putting area producers to work, while offering discounts on specialty foods to its members –I thought one would work well in Stanardsville. There was nothing in it for me personally, except perhaps, as I told people at the time, the elimination of my need to drive to Charlottesville for the few gourmet items I like to keep in my pantry.

I checked with my employer to make sure there would be no conflict of interest. After receiving that assurance, coupled with enthusiastic support from my editor, I contacted the county’s then-director of economic development, Dennis Jarvis, along with a few other members of the community and again, the idea was met with enthusiasm – from all but those connected with *STAR*.

Jarvis put me in touch with the Small Business Development Center in Charlottesville and even offered to help write a business plan, should my volunteer effort, coupled with my full-time job, strain my energy. In keeping with instructions from SBDC, I gathered together some volunteers willing to serve on the board of directors necessitated by the project’s intended nonprofit status, including, but not limited to:  then vice-chairman of the Greene County Board of Supervisors Buggs Peyton; Beverly Lamb, wife of Davis Lamb, then a county planning commissioner; and Joanne Burkholder of the Greene County Farm Bureau, who contacted an attorney willing to contribute his services.

But the project came to an abrupt halt some months later when I, now running out of energy, told Jarvis I was ready to accept his offer to assist with a business plan. He told me, “Sorry, but nothing goes through this office unless it is approved by *STAR*.”

Rather than take the rejection personally, my reporter’s ears perked up and I wondered why the director of economic development, an employee of the county, was taking orders from a nonprofit. When I asked Peyton why this would be so he did not respond, and I moved on, tucking that imperfection into the back of my mind.

I focused on working my beat, covering, among other things, local government meetings, Ruckersville Citizens Council meetings, and fun events that made for good features.

And then, in early 2007 the editorship of the Record changed, and while I was still expected to report on county, town and RCC meetings, I was instructed to stop focusing so much on government news and find out what was happening outside that box — and that was when I first met Steve Jones, president of Fried Companies Inc.

It should be noted here that before I started writing for a living, I did a little work for developers in Richmond. So when Jones talked candidly about FCI and what it hoped to accomplish in the area, making no bones about the fact that while meaning to enhance the community, FCI was out to make a profit, I appreciated his candor. Moreover, as a former property manager, I was impressed with his knowledge of economics, and the market.

As a result, considering the bad rap developers were getting from Schmitt and his supporters, my reporter’s ears perked up again.

The favorable impression Jones left me with was enhanced over time by conversations with such men as Michael Barnes of KG Associates in Charlottesville, and Bill Gentry of Jefferson Land & Realty in Madison.

My ears were in a full upright position, when, in the spring of 2007, *STAR* requested publicity prior to submitting a grant application. Rather than simply write a simple announcement, I was instructed to find out who owned property in the area that would be affected by the revitalization, and who stood to profit.

All property owners contacted unflinchingly provided the information requested. Because I was now familiar with what I considered a “Not In My Back Yard” attitude in the community, I did not question Pamenter when he told me that he and Gary Lowe had purchased a property on Main Street in order to “save” the land it accessed from development by FCI.

But my nose for the news started twitching when, shortly thereafter, I attended a *STAR*-sponsored community meeting that was required of the grant submission process and ran head first into a major imperfection.

Here’s what happened:

Pamenter came into the Record newsroom requesting that a representative of the paper attend the meeting because community support for his project needed to be demonstrated. The editor could not attend, so I volunteered to do so. At that meeting, Pamenter announced that a residential development was necessary to the Town – after he had just told me that he had acquired a property so to “save” it from a developer.

The morning after, I informed my editor something about what I was being told wasn’t jiving, shared my observations, and said I was not comfortable with being considered a *STAR* supporter. She agreed that the paper should not be involved, and placed a call to Pamenter, telling him so without, to my knowledge, offering an explanation. However, she did tell me that Pamenter had said, in so many words, no worries, we weren’t needed anymore.

The episode left me with the impression that what was needed was not so much the actual support of the paper, as was a show of support in the form of a signature on a sign-in sheet to be submitted with the application for grant moneys.

From that point forward, my ears stayed perked – but not just about *STAR*.

That November, running on a platform that included his commitment to make developers pay for the county’s infrastructure, Schmitt won election to a seat on the county’s board of supervisors, and became that body’s liaison to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. At the same time, RCC, in which Schmitt was an active participant, became more vocal, and more demanding.

In 2008 developers were actually directed by commissioners and supervisors to speak with citizens under the influence of RCC Chairwoman Andrea Wilkinson, and I, being the strong supporter of democracy that I am, became seriously concerned.

The Code of Virginia states that proffers are to be voluntary, that a developer’s failure to offer them does not mean the county can turn down his project. However, a locality can institute a proffer policy and they can be negotiated –but not, according to the county attorney, by supervisors.

Though developers were not specifically told to negotiate proffers with Wilkinson and her followers, I firmly believed it was proffers that they wanted discussed, and I further firmly believed that the demands now being placed on developers might be detrimental to the county’s economic development.

As I am also a firm believer in the public’s right to know, I started looking at RCC – and some commissioners and supervisors — with a more critical eye. I did not – and do not – support officials’ references to “citizen input” when justifying decisions they make, supposedly for the good of all in the county. My professional opinion, based on my experience in Greene County, is that it is this small band of people, led by Wilkinson, and few, if any, others, who have provided that “citizen input.”

In 2009, the year Wilkinson was appointed to TJPDC, my attempts to report some of the imperfections I was detecting were met with defensiveness, sometimes outright hostility, and I was instructed, for the most part, to back off.

Among those imperfections was the discovery, previously reported, that back in 2007 when Pamenter said he and Lowe had purchased a property to “save” it from FCI, he and Lowe had actually tried to sell it to FCI.

An editorial I wrote on May 21, 2010, reflected the Record’s efforts to report but not confront. The call I issued for transparency in that column was ignored, and, just three days later, according to a report written by Neil Williamson, executive director of the Free Enterprise Forum, the Greene County Board of Supervisors held a “secret” meeting, during which it signed a waiver that allowed it to forego notifying the public, and did not notify the media.

During that meeting the county code was amended to regulate private water and sewer systems, and a water and sewer service area was created – the night before FCI was to request permission to move forward with paperwork necessary to provide one of its proposed subdivisions with water and sewer. But the actions taken at the “secret meeting” would force FCI to utilize Greene’s water and sewer for the development – meaning that it would not only have to build the infrastructure necessary to that utilization, but that it would have to pay $20,000 per dwelling unit to hook up to the county’s service.

It didn’t work. The word got out. Others who would be affected by the county’s new law organized and spoke up. Attorneys threatened suit, and the county was left with egg on its face.

At about the same time, on June 8, 2010 owners of Highlands Golf Park in Ruckersville hired an attorney to ask supervisors to keep their property in the county’s growth area after a small group of about 30 “citizens” provided input prior to the updating of the county’s comprehensive plan.

I left the Record in March 2011, and between that time, and the establishment of Eye on Greene in early 2012, supported Eddie Deane when he challenged Schmitt for his seat on the board.  I did so because I believe not just in disclosure, but in supporting those who would bring economic development to the county, and I did not believe that Schmitt would do either. Whether or not Deane can actually lead remains to be seen, and, via Eye on Greene, I am watching him, as I am all other supervisors.

So yes, I am writing controversial editorials which may be offensive to some, but I am not doing so because I hold personal grudges.

I am doing so because over the course of the years that I have been reporting on this county the imperfections that have caused my ears to perk up and my nose for the news to twitch have not been addressed, and it is time for our leaders to do so.

The county is in trouble, and its taxpayers need to know the who, what, where, when, why and how of how it got that way.

The county’s rescue squad needs a new building, fire departments need equipment, the jail expansion needs to be paid for, there are expensive environmental mandates coming our way.

Last year the public school district ate up more than $12.5 million of the county’s approximate $52.5 million budget – and that $12.5 million included a $1.4 million dip into the county’s reserve fund.

This year the school district is saying that even if funding remains level it will have to make more than $700,000 in cuts – at a time when the county’s reserve fund is in danger of disappearing altogether.

Sources say that to make payments on the county’s existing approximate $30 million water debt, it will be dipping into its general fund by next year. When that happens, reserves can be kissed goodbye and yet, supervisors have all but committed to a $40 million reservoir that they say will lure business and industry to Greene.

But that business and industry may not come unless our leaders pay close attention to the imperfections they have not yet addressed, along with what developers – those with first-hand knowledge of the commercial market – have to say.

For the last seven years environmentalists and Not-In-My-Backyarders have been raising a ruckus.

The time has come for the rest of us to raise one.

Posted in: Editorials

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