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Outside Looking In

Our national ‘fix-it’ list is growing longer

First published: June 29, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: June 27, 2014 at 4:51 pm

It’s nearly Independence Day, a day that brings on cookouts and vacation trips and long, hot, lazy days by the lake or river.

But it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at the state of the nation, to consider the challenges the nation has conquered and the ones it faces. For there is no better day to consider freedom and the nation than the day that marks this nation’s inspiring beginnings.

Now as throughout our history, we face national challenges. Some of them seem insurmountable.

But if U.S. history teaches us anything, it should be patience. It took a century after the Civil War, for example, for black Americans in much of the nation to be able to drink at the same water fountains, worship at the same churches, eat in the same restaurants and cast ballots with their white counterparts.

There are two ways to look at this: The less charitable is to say that 100 years is too long for a nation theoretically founded on the principle that all men are created equal to give all of its citizens equal rights. The longer view is that things won hard are more meaningful than those we take for granted.

I could accept that latter postulate if we had, during the great civil rights era of the 1960s and early ’70s, eradicated racism. We have not.

While America has ended institutional racism, it has not yet purged bigotry and hated from the hearts of all its citizens. Until we do, we are a lesser society.

Other hard-won rights are equally “self-evident,” though not enough so that they were granted without a struggle. The right to vote for all citizens no matter their gender didn’t come until the nation was more than 150 years old. And while that institutional barrier has long been broken, there are still matters of gender equality — unequal pay, workplace bias, sexual harassment — that are not yet resolved.

Our essential rights to be free of government interference, which are sprinkled throughout the amendments to the Constitution, remain under attack with secret government snooping into our private lives in the name of “national security.” This nation is not secure unless we are free of that burden.

And we are only slowly coming to the point where all citizens, no matter their sexual preferences, will have equal rights to wed, have children and enjoy the rights and the responsibilities of marriage.

That battle — to get the government out of churches, wedding chapels and courthouses — has yet to be won. But in the erosive fashion that much of our political progression has taken, the tide is starting to turn in favor of the greater freedoms for the larger group of people. And that progress will continue.

There is a cause for some concern for the future, however. The growing divide among our citizens reflects that same schism between our major political parties.

The United States has, history shows us, weathered any number of political storms that are not dissimilar to today’s party polarization. The era after the Civil War was a particular political low point as the North struggled with its victory and the South with its defeat.

And the years between the world wars were politically bereft under a couple of weak presidents. Even the McCarthy era showed the system at its worst as the Red Scare took over the halls of Congress and citizens were persecuted for their political beliefs.

Today, it appears, the danger of letting the radical fringes take control of the major parties is exacerbated by an electorate that really seems unable to grasp either the fundamental aspects or the nuances of the body politic. It has gone beyond apathy to ignorance; too many people know far too little about how the government, at all levels, is supposed to function.

No nation with a robust political knowledge could have voting rates of 60 percent or less. On Tuesday, only 15 percent of Republican voters managed to drag themselves to the polls to select a candidate to represent their party in the November Congressional election.

If Jefferson and a couple of other counties hadn’t gone to the polls in greater numbers than the average, about 12 percent of registered Republicans would have voted. That is abysmal.

In November, with mostly state and national candidates up for election, vast stretches of the country will struggle to get 50 percent of the voters to the polls. Polls have shown that a vast number of Americans do not now know who represents them in Congress. Some are so politically unaware that they cannot answer such rudimentary questions as, “What are the three branches of government?” and “What is the separation of powers?”

Our reflection this Independence Day should include probing questions of ourselves. Do I know enough about what is going on to be a participating citizen? Do I understand enough about our government to know how it should work and how it is working? Do I vote regularly, with sufficient knowledge of the candidates to make an informed choice? These things are all important to the continuance of democracy.

I saw a sign on a house the other day that brought back my years in college in the early ’70s. It said, “America: Love it or leave it.” What it really should say is, “America: Love it or fix it.”

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may email him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Legislator displays the arrogance of perceived power

First published: June 22, 2014 at 4:00 am
Last modified: June 20, 2014 at 5:06 pm

St. Lawrence County Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, must be a very important man.

He unilaterally decided last week that he, not the state Legislature, has the ability to determine what is public business and what is not. At the demand of Mr. Arquiett, the Brasher Town Council went into executive session in obvious and blatant violation of state Public Officers Law.

In the 40 years the state’s generally positive open meetings and freedom of information statutes have been around, violations like those in Brasher Tuesday night have gradually become less frequent. The laws have been litigated and interpreted to a pretty fine point, to where much of the case law, as well as the statute, is well known and settled.

There is absolutely no interpretation of the law that would allow a town council to meet privately to discuss the development of all-terrain-vehicle trails. And, reinforcing that, there is no reasonable ethical foundation for a board to do so. In fact, town Supervisor James Dawson, who unfortunately wasn’t at the meeting, said beforehand it would be public.

Then Mr. Arquiett, acting on nothing but his own desire to do business behind closed doors, somehow talked the council into shutting the public out.

As the executive director on the Committee on Open Government, Bob Freeman reminds everyone he speaks to about the law that both the freedom of information and the open meetings laws are built on the presumption that government is open to the public. Asked about Mr. Arquiett’s actions, he told Johnson Newspapers, “Certainly the county legislator ought to know the limit of subjects that may be properly discussed in executive session. Certainly, in my opinion, the board has no duty to roll over for county legislators. It was not his choice. It was the board’s responsibility to comply with the open meetings law.”

To Mr. Freeman, the man who can recite every word in the relevant chapters of Public Officers Law, this was black-letter law; there was no room for any clever interpretation.

Mr. Arquiett disagreed, however, saying after the meeting that he was justified in closing it to the public for “negotiation” with the DEC “to lay out the framework for getting the ability to access the state forest.”

Pish-tosh. Mr. Arquiett displays a blatant arrogance in his decision to assert his primacy over state law. It is no accident the Legislature chose to put the open government statutes under Public Officers Law. It was their intention that public officers be ruled by the statute. It is every elected and appointed officials’ obligation to read, understand and retain the elements of Public Officers Law and to abide by it. It appears the people of Mr. Arquiett’s district have come a cropper with their representative because he clearly either doesn’t understand the law, chooses to ignore it or both.

The most flagrant violations of the open meetings and freedom of information laws often occur when some public official or public body is trying to do something they shouldn’t be doing. So the people of Brasher and St. Lawrence County ought to be suspicious of why this seemingly innocuous topic has taken on a cloak of secrecy. Who is hiding what? And why?

The issue of ATV trails has been imbued with controversy because many municipalities have tied themselves into knots trying to justify just calling public highways ATV trails. That effort in Lewis County has brought numerous lawsuits, the bulk of which the county has lost. Jefferson County has resisted, for the most part, the temptation to follow Lewis County’s lead, preferring instead to take some time and effort to create a trails system that does not flagrantly violate state law. As a result, it has avoided the conflict that Lewis County fostered.

Now St. Lawrence County has to decide how it is going to build its trail system. The easy path would be to just open a bunch of public roads and call it a trail system, as Lewis County did. However, at least one town in the county has already been successfully sued for trying to do that, which should be warning enough. If further trails development talks require hiding behind closed doors, one can’t help but to assume somebody’s trying to get away with something.

Or, it could just be the arrogance of a legislator who has decided he is more important than his constituents. He is not, however, and he should be held accountable for that action. Mr. Arquiett was elected by 235 votes out of 1,700 cast, which is far from a landslide victory. He owes the people who put him in office better treatment because they could just as easily decide, in the next election, to choose someone else.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may email him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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A tip of the hat to readers of the Times

First published: June 15, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: June 14, 2014 at 11:37 pm

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about working at the Times is our readers. It’s time for you all to take a bow.

In many ways, the north country has a more sophisticated newspaper readership than many far more urban areas. Among you are Grammar Nazis who love nothing more than to point out our writing and editing deficiencies. When we make egregious mistakes, you let us know it. That’s a good thing; it helps to keep us on our toes. Also among you are Logic Police, who can immediately spot errors in logic and contradictions in points of view. Kudos to you as well.

In fact, there aren’t many things in the Times, good or bad, that go unremarked by our readers in some form, and that tells us that you are still engaged with the product, that you read it and absorb it and understand it.

And for me, the most obvious sign of our readers’ level of maturity and understanding shows up on our website every day, in the list of most read and most emailed stories. I believe the Watertown Daily Times readers’ news judgment and understanding may be as high as anywhere in the country.

Regularly, in the list of most read stories, we find meaty, newsworthy stories occupying our readership. I looked around the other day at some other papers in the state outside of New York City, and a majority of those who give readership statistics are heavily weighted toward crimes and cops. One paper on the other side of the 21st Congressional District had top stories listed one day last week and every story listed was a police report or a fire story. Yet I spend time on the paper’s website regularly, and in terms of overall volume, the paper is not a cop-shop rag — it does an exemplary job of covering all facets of its region.

So what is the difference? It has to be the readership. Times readers care about the issues that affect their lives and they understand there is much more to a daily news report than the police items. This is not to say stories about crime are unimportant; we believe you should all have access to information on public safety and crime. But the Times presents so much more than that, and you respond by reading the stories about government and the environment and the personalities of the north country. It puts you a shelf or two above a lot of news consumers, and we salute you for that.

And we would also like to salute you for your extremely positive response to the changes in our comments policy. After a month or so of requiring registration and one or another form of identity, you have actually increased the level of commenting on the Times website. That reinforces our conviction that registration would enhance, rather than inhibit, the public conversation.

While we still get some comments that are a little harsh, a little judgmental, we believe the general tone of comments has improved. Allowing you to flag comments you feel inappropriate helps us to judge that. And, as we suspected, the invective and personal attacks have been vastly toned down.

There is still a healthy give and take among readers. People whose opinions are in the minority among commenters still face arguments against their position. But much of the feeling of antagonism has ebbed away; commenters are less prone to use ad hominem attacks in the new system, which results in a more tolerable series of arguments for and against a position — as opposed to being against a person.

We take our share of hits, especially those of us who write opinion pieces such as Outside Looking In. But if you got into the newspaper game with thin skin, and couldn’t figure out how to thicken it up, it probably isn’t much fun. I appreciate your good comments and I thoughtfully consider your criticisms. And that’s how it is supposed to work.

And as an example, I have been considering a letter from a reader that we ran last week, and the comments attached to it, and it will bring some changes for this column. The letter writer said he doesn’t think what is clearly an opinion piece, as is this column, should be on a news page. There are a number of thoughts regarding that, including ones I got from colleagues here who pointed out that there is a long tradition of columnists appearing on news pages.

But the complaint was valid, and starting June 22, this column will appear on the Sunday opinion page, as it does when it appears at midweek. I am listening to you, and I appreciate your input. And I want to personally thank you for being more interested in “Neighbors raise concerns about dumping at former junkyard on Ives Street Road” than you were in “Lyons Falls man accused of taking inspection certificate.” Although if you drive in Lewis County a lot, it wouldn’t hurt to read that one, too.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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‘Left-out’ officials can help make best of new Mohawk land pact

First published: June 01, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 31, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Now that the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe have reached a long-negotiated agreement to end the tribe’s land claim against the state, the voices of those who were not offered a seat at the negotiating table are being raised in protest. It is fair to suppose, however, that without a cerain constriction of the negotiation team, too many separate agendas would have made the pact impossible to ratify.

The land claim goes back to 1982. The genesis of the claim, however, dates to a 1797 treaty between New York and the Mohawks in which two deputies of the tribe, Joseph Brandt and John Deserontyon, agree to cede all tribal lands to the state in exchange for $1,000 for the tribe, and $600 apiece for the tribal negotiators. The treaty was never ratified by Congress, which was a violation of the federal Indian Non-Intercourse Act, designed to prevent the states from entering into often predatory treaties with tribes – such as the one with the Mohawks.

The federal government laid the foundation for future land claims with treaties beginning with the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwyx and most notably inclusive of the Iroquois Nation in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which promised the tribes sovereignty within their established reservations, and promised, in addition, $4,500 per year from the federal government to provide for the general welfare of the tribes.

The Mohawk claim languished in the federal courts for decades, while a series of federal court rulings were issued that militated against tribal claims. The decisions leaned heavily on the principle of laches, a defense that an action could have an unfairly negative effect on parties not central to the action — in the case of the tribal land claims, the owners of lands within the claim area who would suffer if an adverse ruling were issued.

The Mohawk case was eventually broken open with a ruling that while 85 percent of the land claim was improper under laches, a three-sided area that appeared to have been carved from the reserve did not meet the laches test because tribal members already owned a significant part of the Hogansburg Triangle, and the case was allowed to proceed.

This ruling, and the desire by the state to break a boycott of tribal payments due from its Hogansburg casino, led to serious negotiations. They yielded an agreement that will see St. Lawrence County and the towns of Massena and Brasher receive compensation from both the tribe and the state, and in turn the tribe will receive payments from the New York Power Authority and an allocation of low-cost power from the authority’s Massena generating facility. No private landowners within the settlement area will be compelled to sell their land, but land purchased from willing sellers by the tribe will be added to the St. Regis Reservation.

In a difficult environment, it appears that a reasonable settlement has been achieved. The state and localities will receive the casino compensation that was long ago agreed to. The county will receive an unrestricted $4 million annual payment from the state. The tribe will honor its casino payment agreement, but receive compensation from the tribe from NYPA, whose Moses-Saunders site has affected tribal lands, and get low-cost power the tribe can use to try to lure job-creating industry to the reservation.

And within hours of the announcement of the agreement, supervisors in Massena and Brasher have commenced to whine about being excluded from the talks, and members of the traditional Mohawk faction are complaining they, too, were excluded.

The Akwesasne Mohawks across the border in Canada were not made part of the talks because their reservation is outside of the state. The traditional Mohawks were likely not included because they are almost always at cross-purposes with the recognized tribal government. It’s likely the recognized tribal government wanted to focus the tribal interests during the negotiations.

The matter of the lack of town representation in the talks is in keeping with what appears to be a basic practice of the Cuomo administration to do as much as possible in secret with the fewest possible participants. Then it trots out its agreement as a done deal, with everyone smiling in the background.

In this case, however, that process yielded results that have not been forthcoming over the past 30 years. And given the very narrow basis of the settlement — only a small portion of the initial land claim formed the basis of the settlement of the entire land claim, and the landowners within that area are protected from the forced loss of their land — it is difficult to suggest that the addition of two town supervisors into the negotiating mix would have provided any superior results.

Brasher Supervisor James Dawson and Massena Supervisor Joseph Gray act like they’ve been shut out of the benefits of the deal. Nothing is further from the truth; both towns have been guaranteed by the state that they will lose no tax revenues from land that is included in the reservation, both will have access to a significant amount of casino money that has been withheld for the past four years and Massena will get the additional benefit of a lucrative rental agreement with NYPA for a building at the town-owned airport that will bring it revenue for years to come.

This settlement is long overdue and everyone wins a little something. The tribe can add the Hogansburg Triangle lands, over time, to the reservation and it will get money and electrical power from NYPA. The state frees up the casino money for itself and the municipalities. The municipalities get a reasonably reliable infusion of money each year. And the land claim ends, giving landowners the peace of mind that they will not, at the whim of some court, lose their land.

Joe Gray and Jim Dawson have indulged in their whine. Now it’s time to figure out the best use of the settlement’s terms for the municipalities, and put this centuries-old dispute to rest.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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The swamp is dark and the water is rising

First published: May 25, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 24, 2014 at 10:31 pm

An unknown man shows up at a residence, passes himself off as a reporter (he’s not one) and starts asking questions about the family inside.

A different unknown man sits on a quiet street for hours, leaving only to follow the residents of a particular house he’s watching.

An operative of a Washington firm sends a series of documents to a paper in a rural congressional district, telling the reporter he contacts that if he doesn’t print them quickly, he’ll take the documents to someone else who will print them.

Television pilot? Self-published political thriller? LSD-induced hallucination? Nope. Just another day in the life of the 21st Congressional District.

For the staff of the Times, it was a head-shaker of a week. When Dan Flatley started talking about his encounter with a Washington private investigator, it piqued our interest. When we got a look at the documents, it got us shaking our heads. What is the point, we all asked each other. None of the documents was new, all of them were publicly available and their subject matter was, at best, snooze inducing.

Then we found out about the intrusions at one candidate’s house, and were reminded that we were recently told about the faux reporter incident at the other’s residence. Everyone involved in the 21st CD race seemed legitimately shocked and outraged, including the Democratic candidate’s campaign. What, everyone was wondering, is going on?

I’m not naming any of the candidates because, well, I’m tired of being accused of coddling one, or the other, or going after one, or the other. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to ask who gains from all this silly subterfuge?

Each Republican candidate suggested the other was at fault, until we asked “Who gains?” With the apparent targeting of each of them, they both suggested the Democrat gains.

But the Democrat logically responded that until there is a nominated Republican, going after both of them would be senseless. And expensive. And likely with no real gain.

So we return to the question: who gains?

We must return to the known facts. The documents we received which were reported to damage the campaign of one of the candidates did not plow new ground, did not provide unknown information, did not make substantive claims of a damaging nature. The mysterious appearance of unknown men at both candidates’ homes was disturbing but yielded no “dirt.” Thus, all the efforts were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as the Bard wrote.

A little investigation into the source of the documents, however, has yielded some interesting tidbits. Two of the principals have publicly documented ties to the upper echelons of the Republican Party. One partner was a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner, and before that an aide to the House Whip. He also was the chief researcher for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Another partner was a U.S. Senate staff member and worked on presidential campaigns. This is a firm connected at the hip to the top of the Republican Party. So one has to ask: why would they be dropping a dime on a candidate also deeply connected to the party leadership?

As to the “trackers,” all we can prove is that one is from Yonkers — that’s a pretty good haul from the suburbs of Albany — and the other one is NOT a reporter from the Watertown Daily Times. But somebody is paying them.

This swamp has gotten deep in a very short time. It appears that some of the key players are “not from around here,” as they say in Maine. The kerfuffle all this has caused has been a distraction from a campaign that is rapidly moving toward conclusion. And, as one Republican candidate noted, it really has nothing at all to do with issues of importance to the 21st Congressional District.

We want to know what’s going on and we’re going to keep digging to find out. But we hope all the candidates, from all the parties, remember that this is a vital political race to determine who will represent a deeply under-represented area in Congress. The Republican candidates, especially, need to stay focused on the issues of critical importance to the north country: jobs, health care, Fort Drum, the border, the St. Lawrence Seaway. They need to forget about the subterfuge that is plaguing the race and instead convince the voters that one of them is worthy to represent us in Washington. Then we have to hope like hell one of them is.

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What they don’t say when they speak through emails

First published: May 18, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 17, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Technological advances have been great for journalists. We have the ability, today, to report instantaneously from remote locations, to provide decent quality video by virtually every reporter, to live Tweet breaking news events to keep our audience “live at the scene.”

And at the Times, we’ve invested to stay current. We have tablets and Chromebooks and notebooks and laptops that can hook remotely to our content management system, meaning we can send stories into our system as quickly as they can be typed, rather than having to bring the reporters back to the “mother ship” to write their stories. We have numerous devices that can shoot both still and video photos, in extremely high resolution.

All this combines for a more immediate and timely report, delivered on multiple platforms. We are no longer tied to our print product; with our social media feeds and website, we are as immediate as you can get. But all that can mean a lot less if we can’t deliver all the news of a particular story. And the technology that has so liberated us in other areas has constricted us in reporting our stories because email and text messages are proving to be extremely frustrating contact points to our sources.

On the surface, one might think that email transmissions would make our report more accurate, because no one can dispute the accuracy of a quote delivered by email. And when no other contact can work — say your source is in Nepal, with no reliable phone service but with an Internet connection, as an example — a series of emails can get the job done.

Sadly, we don’t have that many situations in which we need to interview a source in Nepal, or Diego Garcia. Nearly all our sources are in New York state, and the majority of them are in the north country. Yet, we have many people who request that we email them our questions, and they’ll get back to us.

Those that do, in many cases, do so because they have found this to be a convenient way to offer not-entirely-responsive answers, to provide “on-message” sound bites of very little value or to offer as a quote words that have been written by someone else.

I wrote a story this week about a Matthew A. Doheny campaign flier that contained false information about the Times. My contacts with the Doheny campaign were a not particularly satisfying combination of phone calls and emails. My contact with the Stefanik campaign, from whom I sought reactions, was entirely by email. In fact, efforts to get a voice associated with the Stefanik campaign has become increasingly difficult as the campaign has progressed.

And it’s not just campaign organizations that want to control their message so tightly that no actual words ever leave their candidates’ lips. Far worse, from the standpoint of the public’s right to know, are the responses of state agency “spokesmen.” I use the word in quotes because in more and more instances, these spokespeople never speak. They seek an email list of questions, they respond to any of them they wish to and they ignore those that make them uncomfortable, and our reading public often ends up with less public information from state government than they have a right to have.

I counsel our reporters to be persistent. To call early and often. To drive to a government office, if it is located somewhere near us, to seek a face-to-face meeting. Despite that, a reporter getting information from multiple sources, as we always demand, often finds that email responses provide an additional “voice” that adds to the story. And, as many reporters have pointed out to me, with some sources, it’s either an email exchange or no exchange at all — especially with state agencies.

But reporting, when it’s done right, is an endless uncovering of information. If you’re a good reporter, the answer to one question more often than not kicks up another question. And the answer to that may kick up yet another query. And so it goes. Except with an email exchange — that finite process stifles follow-up questions. It allows sound-bites and rote answers to supplant real information. It allows “speakers” to be spoken for by their hired flacks. It allows sources to provide answers that don’t really respond to the question asked.

In short, email interviews too often interfere with the reporting process, and too often interfere with the truth.

The rule that we follow at Northern New York Newspapers right now is, if a quote comes from an email, it must be designated as such. If an entire exchange is from an email, that must be adequately explained. That rule lets readers know that this quote might be tainted, which is important. But it doesn’t address the greater question of whether we should routinely be resorting to email exchanges in lieu of a voice-to-voice interview, or if we should place some restrictions on that as a news gathering resource. Our reporting staff is mulling the question, and I hope to find a place where we can establish processes and policies that answer the deficiencies of email interviews. If you want, I can send you an email on that.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at 661-2351. (Or, if you must, at pwhite@What they ...)

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A story best written as an autobiography

First published: May 13, 2014 at 12:37 pm
Last modified: May 13, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Darrel Aubertine, one of the best known political figures in Jefferson County whose career has ranged from farmer to county legislator to state legislator to commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, can’t seem to stay away from political IEDs.

The most recent example of this is the assertion by state Sen. Malcolm Smith that he “bought” the votes of eight fellow senators in 2008 to help him be elected majority leader. According to state Board of Election records, Darrel’s campaign committee received five donations from Sen. Smith totaling $9,500 in the month before the general election.

The New York Post reported that Mr. Smith alleged the eight candidates he supported were “on the payroll” to vote for him. The allegation is damning and needs to be addressed by Mr. Aubertine. But we presented him a number of opportunities to respond to them before we published Ted Booker’s story on the allegations, and he failed to respond.

Tis a pity. Because I suspect that Darrel’s reaction was one of surprise rather than resignation. We can’t know how all this went down, but let’s be fair: quid pro quo among senators in the same party is part of the definition of politics, and this type of quid pro quo hardly qualifies as being “on the payroll” for anyone.

A quick look at the campaign finance records of any state legislator who has faced a tough election battle will reveal that other state legislators of the same party facing little or no opposition frequently “share” their campaign chests with their embattled colleagues. As a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, Darrel NEVER had an easy campaign. That he would get help from his colleagues should be expected, not wondered at.

Sen. Smith is now under investigation for trying to bribe his way onto the Republican Party line in the last New York City mayoral election. This should tell you all you need to know about Mr. Smith’s ethical challenges and his problem-solving skills. With a couple dozen people seeking a ballot spot to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many of them real Republicans, any Democrat who thought cash would bring him an easy Wilson-Pakula designation to run on the party’s line was short in the reasoning department.

The allegation that Sen. Smith had fellow senators “on the payroll” was made to an FBI informant at a restaurant, and smacks of baloney and bravura. It doesn’t ring at all true.

And had Darrel jumped out in front of this, explained this was Sen. Smith’s version and that it didn’t reflect what he and the other senators understood, the lede on the story would have been very different. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Like a lot of politicians in this era, Darrel adopted a rope-a-dope strategy, pulling into a shell until it all blew over. Such a pity, when the truth would have served so well.

It unfortunately doesn’t end there, however. The continuing controversy over Cape Vincent’s Water District 2 has embroiled the Aubertine family, and the dispute, which would likely be a mere kerfuffle in most towns, has once again pitted Cape Vincent residents in a pitched battle. The wind farm developers may have folded their tents and trudged out of town, but the discord they fostered just keeps on and on.

Like the Smith allegations, had Darrel jumped out in front of the water district issue, it probably wouldn’t still be simmering. When the district was formed 17 years ago, it included just four parcels, including the Aubertine’s. In the ensuing years, seven more property owners have tied into public water on Darrel’s property. The problem, boiled down, is simple: those users are not in the water district, and if they want public water, they should be. But Darrel stuck a rake in the propeller on this issue when he refused to let town consultants on his property to check the hookups.

It was a stubborn and retributive act, but it wasn’t sinful. There is no evidence that Darrel is unduly profiting from the outside users tapping into his line, nor other signs of impropriety. The town would be satisfied to resolve this by expanding the district, changing the manner of charging for water to make it fair for everyone, and moving on. But the families involved, including Darrel’s, were on the other side of the wind farm issue from the majority of the Town Council, and that has clouded everyone’s view. Although, to be fair, the council appears poised to compromise more than Darrel and his District 2 neighbors are.

So here is this man, a farmer at heart, embroiled in a couple of major controversies that he needn’t be tangled in. A simple statement of fact in the matter of the dubious Smith allegation, and some movement toward meaningful compromise in the water district matter, could completely clear the air. To date, neither appears to be forthcoming.

We all write our own stories. Our decisions speak for us and when those decisions don’t include explanations, we allow others to edit the text of our lives that we should control. Darrel Aubertine has had a remarkable life by any standard. He has served the town, the county and the state at many levels, and served well. His book is rich and full and fascinating, and now, at this point in his life, he should speak up and make sure he continues to write his own libretto.

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They gotta accentuate the negative

First published: May 11, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 10, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Politics in the era of the tea party, the Internet and partisan polarization has become a blood sport. Campaigns in recent years have been marked by the nasty, accusatory and personal (remember the Swiftboat Veterans) and have become more than ever marked by rote sound bites and unwavering, largely irrelevant messages.

Until the very recent past, however, primary campaigns have eschewed the take-no-prisoners tone of general elections. With the divisions in both main parties — ultraconservatives and moderates in the Republican Party, deeply liberals versus mildly progressives in the Democrats camp — primaries now have become the places where campaigns appear poised to eat their young.

And probably nowhere in the country is there a more bitter, personal campaign than the one between Republicans Elise Stefanik and Matt Doheny. A lot is at stake personally while, ironically, little is at stake for the party.

Republican strategists have looked at the 21st Congressional District and seen two young, attractive candidates slugging it out to represent the party against an engaging but politically naive Democrat, Aaron G. Woolf, who came late to the race and whose campaign has yet to gain a lot of momentum. For groups like the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, it is easy to stand aside while Ms. Stefanik and Mr. Doheny wale on each other. They are pretty confident that whomever emerges bloody but victorious from this primary will be ready to overwhelm Mr. Woolf in the general election.

And they’re ready to back up that conviction by having a pile of money waiting in the wings — for the winner. The loser can go home and lick his or her wounds.

It seems that a number of opportunities are being lost along the way. And from the peanut gallery, you can see all of the candidates employing strategies that you have to wonder about.

Take Mr. Doheny, for example. He has jumped into the pit on this campaign, slinging arrows at Ms. Stefanik for all manner of perceived failures of ideology on her part. They range from marginally appropriate to just plain silly. The Americans for Tax Freedom pledge not to raise taxes, for example, has been a major Doheny attack, because Ms. Stefanik refuses to sign it.

Matt: nobody cares. Ms. Stefanik was formed in the crucible of the Bush White House and Paul Ryan’s vice presidential campaign. Of the things you could legitimately criticize, her conservative credential is not one of them. She pledged to the residents of the 21st CD that she won’t raise taxes, and frankly, if I cared about that pledge (which I think is a short-sighted promise by any candidate), I would prefer she pledge me than pledge to Grover Norquist, who is so far out on the radical fringe he makes Attila look like a moderate.

And Mr. Doheny has made other claims that are at best tenuous. For example, I view it as walking pretty close to the edge for him to “blame” Ms. Stefanik for Bush’s fiscal policies to combat the country’s economic meltdown. Matt Doheny made millions of dollars on Wall Street, yet he castigates Ms. Stefanik for bailing out Wall Street and the big banks. If Mr. Doheny really doesn’t think the Great Recession needed government intervention to get the country back on track, he hasn’t adequately studied the potential consequences of the Bush administration standing down during a national crisis. And without the bailout, how would Mr. Doheny’s own financial statements look right now? He is a creature of Wall Street; he still makes his living in the world of finance, and while he should be proud of that, this attack on Ms. Stefanik smacks of hypocrisy.

It isn’t all about Mr. Doheny going for the jugular, however. The Stefanik campaign has been equally ruthless. She has criticized the timing of Mr. Doheny’s entrance into the race, his failure to oppose the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act, his Wall Street connections and even his conservative credentials.

Stop. From the standpoint of political philosophy, these two are mirror images.

Once you reach a certain point on the political spectrum, comparatives are irrelevant. Both of these candidates are at that point and beyond. Let’s stipulate they’re conservative and move on.

As for the SAFE Act, Ms. Stefanik has implied she is more interested in repealing it than Mr. Doheny. He has responded that no, he is more interested in repealing it. So, time for a quick political primer: federal elected officials are not allowed to dabble in state legislation. So they both ought to stop saying they’re going to help repeal it, because they can’t.

The irony of this bitter campaign is that there are very few points of contention between the two candidates. They both want to change the tax system, give breaks to taxpayers (when they really mean the top 10 percent of taxpayers), get rid of the Affordable Care Act and eviscerate environmental protection laws in the name of being “business friendly.”

Given the similarities, it was probably inevitable that the campaign become personal.

All Matt Doheny needed to do to win was campaign on his north country connections. That was a badge he earned in his prior runs against Bill Owens. He has been of the north country nearly all his life, and now he is of the north country, not of Manhattan. Elise Stefanik can trot out her Northern New York connection all she wants, but while she portrays it as a mile wide, any real probe shows it’s only a foot deep.

She looked around at the political atlas, saw a Democrat who might be vulnerable to a young, aggressive, attractive conservative female candidate, and made it happen. And you can’t hate her for that; from Bill Buckley to Robert Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, the state has a rich legacy of people moving here from elsewhere to pluck a political jewel or two.

But in the 21st district, all other things being equal, what sets Mr. Doheny apart from Ms. Stefanik is that he can legitimately claim he is “from here.” And with the name recognition from two other campaigns, that should have been enough to push him to a win in a sparsely attended primary. Had that been his campaign — “hey, I’m just as conservative as her but I’m your north country guy” — he’d have won.

Now, there is baggage from a negative campaign. While it extends to both candidates, it has more chance to slap Mr. Doheny upside the head. If it does, he has no one but himself (and his hired guns) to blame.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Time to tame the wild, wild web

First published: May 08, 2014 at 1:23 pm
Last modified: May 08, 2014 at 1:23 pm

For many years, the Watertown Daily Times has required that people submitting letters to be printed in the newspaper give full personal information — who they are, where they live and so forth — and we print the who and the where with each letter.

We instituted this policy, one that has become an industry standard and one to which we came a little late to the party, because of a growing belief that allowing anonymous comments fosters untruths, unjustified attacks and other calumny, and doesn’t allow people who may be criticized to understand who it is that is opposing them. And, as with news stories in which we won’t let people make anonymous statements without a clearly expressed and justifiable reason, attributing comments to a known person allows everyone to judge the comments against any known personal agendas.

However, we have not similarly applied that standard to our website, and the consequences there are more significant, because the immediacy of online publishing offers a corresponding immediacy to posting of public responses. The result has been unfortunate. Far too often, comments quickly drift off point, straying into topics that are not, in fact, responsive to the topic at hand. More distressingly, they also have become, in some cases, the septic tank of public opinion, with name-calling rampant and ad hominem attacks frequently supplanting legitimate and responsible delivery of opinion.

The pejorative nature of many of these comments is distressing, both for the authors of website items that have elicited the responses and for the people who are suddenly under personal attack simply because they had the temerity to post their own opinion. Without prompt moderation of comments, some really nasty name-calling has hit the website of the Times, and even though we try to take out the worst offenses, and sanction the worst offenders, we are fostering this culture of snark by not requiring that people put their names to their words.

So we’ve decided to stop that. In the near future, once a few bugs are ironed out, we will adopt a new commenting program for our website that will require either a log-in with a name, or a log in with any existing social media account such as Facebook or Twitter. We are going to put your name and your reputation behind your remarks — just as it should be. We also will refine and publish new, more clear comment guidelines and we will significantly ratchet down our responses to offenders.

I’m sure that you have all heard your mother or grandmother tell you to treat people the way you wish to be treated. Or, as Matthew Chapter 7, Verse 12 advises us, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Whether it is advice you get in a warm kitchen or the word as offered in the King James version of the Bible, it should be remembered.

I saw the contents of a moderated (in other words, removed) comment the other day that called another commenter stupid. That is an ignorant remark — made more ignorant because it was offered up anonymously. And it was, for the same reason, cowardly. And it was hurtful. We are going to stop this kind of action on our website no matter what it takes.

We offer instantaneous commenting because we really want to engage with our readers. We provide a lot of community information through the website, and we’d like to give our readers the ability to become a part of that news report. At the same time, we have an obligation to keep our website from becoming a forum for hate and invective. And we have an obligation to protect the people who follow the rules from attacks by those who do not.

I tell all our reporters that they have to toughen up their skin. Praise comes less frequently than condemnation, especially when we’re doing our jobs right, which is to say, reporting it straight down the middle. I tell my folks that their only job is to get the facts right, talk to and report all sides to a story, and understand there will be criticism.

And criticism, in the right spirit, is good for all of us. I appreciate comments, even negative ones, that provide me with new insight, point out errors or offer a perspective I hadn’t considered. Reporters understand that as well. On the other hand, vitriolic attacks based on tiny issues — typographical errors, for example, or minor grammatical problems — really are without merit.

Publications everywhere are looking for ways to return civil and lively discourse to their websites. Our plan, to require verifiable identification and to tighten up our moderation policies, will start soon and we hope they’ll be successful. Of course, if our readers did a little self-policing, well, that would be OK too. Do unto others...

Perry White is the thick-skinned managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net

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Tempus fugit, or how you can tell you’re no spring chicken

First published: May 04, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 05, 2014 at 1:49 pm

As a gesture of goodwill toward my contemporaries — and there are a lot of us — I’m going to give adults of a certain age some tips that will help them embrace the onset of years. Here is a brief list of signs that you’re not as young as you think you are.

Your feats of memory are really at the feet of memory. They don’t call brief lapses of memory, many of which embarrassingly occur in midsentence, “senior moments” on a whim. You need to face it: you will get to the point where your greatest recollection achievements are suddenly remembering that you forgot something. You really feel good when you remember exactly what it is you forgot. Last weekend, I got all ready for my weekly Sunday excursion to Flower Memorial Library, packing up the books I read during the week and putting them in the entryway, all set to go. Then, about 3 miles from home, I got this sinking feeling. I pulled over and looked in the back seat, and sure enough — no book bag. Still, it was only a 6-mile detour, rather than the nearly 30-mile trip to the library and back...

You start looking for new hobbies. This is especially true for runners with aging knees, weight lifters and team-sports players. At some point, you realize it’s time to do some negotiating between mind and body because, really, pain is not an acceptable hobby. A lot of runners become bikers, weight lifters shift to lighter workouts, team-sports players look for less strenuous pursuits like drinking or watching hockey on Canadian TV networks. Bob Cornell of Adams, former advertising manager at the Times, has found a unique new hobby: chain saw sculpture. He’s got a smashing Abe-Lincoln-on-a-stump in his yard that’s worth a look. And last time I saw him, he still had all his limbs, the chief challenge for chain saw artists.

You suddenly decide to start reading “Literature.” At some point, if you are an avid reader, you will consider elevating your reading choices. If you’re a big fan of mysteries or Westerns or science fiction or any other fiction genre that is considered “low-brow” by the writers in the New York Review of Books, at some point you’re going to suddenly decide you need to start reading the Pulitzer Prize winner, or the Booker Award winner, or the Nobel Literature award winner, or ... well you get the point. When you start this, you frequently will be surprised at what literary critics consider to be award-winning writing. If you’ve already hit this point in life and are willing to acknowledge it, I’d love to hear of your experience. For me, I’ve found results all over the lot; I recall being enchanted by John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” but found Thomas Pynchon’s “Vineland” dense beyond my patience. And don’t even talk to me about Salmon Rushdie.

You suddenly realize Newton Minnow was right. (For those who have forgotten: in a 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minnow called commercial television a “vast wasteland.”) Television has been an integral part of life for my generation, marked by such milestones as the space race and subsequent coverage of our nation above the atmosphere, a number of assassinations, a number of stirring speeches, even a war (the first Gulf War was short enough to qualify as a mini-series). Along the path, we’ve embraced both the ridiculous (“Webster”) and the sublime (“All in the Family”) and just about everything in between. The hallmark of that experience, however, is that we could always tell fiction (“The Rockford Files”) from fact (“CBS Evening News”). Both qualified as entertainment in that they captured our attention, but we could always tell the difference. Try that today. The airwaves are jammed with what are euphemistically called “reality” shows like “The Real Housewives of Plessis” and “Duck Dynasty.” If your IQ equals your age, you understand there is no reality involved. And without exception, these shows are schlock, or worse. The reason they exist: because a tightly scripted teleplay is expensive but a loosely outlined “reality” show is cheap-cheap-cheap. At our expense, of course.

Weeks that used to go for 168 hours have dwindled, far as you can tell, to about 140. The age-old question “where did the time go?” takes on a new and ominous meaning when you’re packing an AARP card in your purse or wallet. The advantage is that, if you’re still working, the days fly by. The disadvantage is, if you’re trying to wring the last gorgeous days out of summer, the days fly by. Tempis fugit is my life, and as you age, it will become yours as well.

If you recognize any of these telltale signs, don’t worry. You are not alone. And who knows — maybe someday there’ll be an app for that.

Perry White is the creaky managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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