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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 22, 2009
“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”
Saturday afternoon, Michael Fields, a candidate for New Scotland supervisor, stormed into our newspaper office. He complained that our New Scotland reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer, was digging up information before the election.
That is what our reporter is supposed to do, replied our publisher, James E. Gardner.
Fields called it poor journalism. On the contrary; it is essential for reporting to inform the electorate if democracy is to work.
This is a defining election for the once-rural town, which had been absorbing the subtle growing pains of an increasingly suburban area but, in the last two years, has been faced with a plan for a major retail development, anchored by a Target.
Gardner also heard complaints this week from long-time Republican committee member Anne Carson, and from Annie Brill of New Scotland FIRST who stated, “You have a young reporter who has been manipulated by a nasty group of people for two years, you may need someone more knowledgeable about zoning laws to cover the story from now on.”
We’ll stick with Hale Spencer.
She is the one who broke the story about Sphere Development’s plans. Whispered words in the bustle of crowds leaving a town-board meeting caught her ear: “I don’t want to be remembered for bringing a Wal-Mart here,” the town supervisor said discreetly to another.
Our reporter dug then to find out what was happening. No plans had been officially presented. “All I know is that it would be a shopping center of some magnitude,” said the town’s zoning administrator.
Hale Spencer pinpointed sources and connected the dots. Townspeople were galvanized. Over 2,400 in a town of 9,000 signed a petition calling for a moratorium so that zoning laws could be examined and updated to follow the town’s 1994 comprehensive land-use plan. Sphere Development told us that the current zoning had served as a beacon, attracting the company to what had been the Bender melon farm.
Our editorials are based on solid news reporting. Our March 6, 2008 editorial “Does New Scotland want a big-box mall?” won an international prize. “This is a thorough and thoughtful look at the issues surrounding the development of agricultural land and the policies in the community of New Scotland,” wrote the judge for the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. “While it is focused on a particular area, this editorial echoes the debate going on in many rural communities throughout North America and the need to involve community in the discussion to develop a new comprehensive land-use plan.”
Sometimes it takes a respected award to make clear what those in the midst of turmoil can’t see fair and thorough coverage.
With the election season, our coverage has intensified. Our reporter conducted in-depth issues-oriented interviews with the candidates running in the Republican primary. We were the only paper to do so. Roselyn Robinson successfully challenged the GOP’s original designees, knocking Charles Voss off the ballot. Incumbent Douglas LaGrange, who had also been given the Democratic line, kept the Republican line, although he has since distanced himself from the deeply divided committee.
Political parties have become meaningless in this election. Two Democrats incumbent supervisor, Thomas Dolin, and newcomer Daniel Mackay are running with long-time Republican LaGrange. Calling themselves Team New Scotland, they favor a 50,000-square-foot size cap to stop the Sphere project and advertise, “Vote to stop big-box development.”
Running against them are Robinson, Fields, and Timothy Stanton. Stanton was unsuccessful in his Primary Day challenge for the GOP line but overcame a court challenge to stay on the New Scotland FIRST line along with Robinson. New Scotland FIRST is a political committee for which Brill, Robinson’s sister, is treasurer.
Fields has the Republican line, but missed out on the New Scotland FIRST line because of the court challenge. Our reporter has covered the ins and outs of these political machinations over the last few months, lending insight to our readers.
Profiles written by Hale Spencer have made clear that Robinson, Fields, and Stanton oppose a limit on the size of retail buildings while their opponents favor a cap.
It is not surprising then that Gregory Widrick, a managing partner at Sphere, would tell Hale Spencer he would “absolutely” support candidates in the upcoming election “that don’t oppose our development.” Widrick brought up the topic of elections when our reporter called, saying Sphere wouldn’t spend money on its project until after the elections.
Our Oct. 8 front-page story, “Sphere still here, waiting,” led with news that there was no change in Sphere’s position, counter to what other local media had reported, and also carried news of the endorsements.
Sphere is awaiting the outcome of the election, Widrick said, concluding, “It all depends on what happens in New Scotland with the entitlements.”
The angry reaction from Fields and Brill, we suspect, has to do with the fact that a grassroots group, New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, put Hale Spencer’s story on a billboard and circulated e-mails about it. This thwarted what a former Republican committee chairman called a “Trojan Horse” approach meaning the New Scotland FIRST candidates were campaigning by saying they were opposed to big-box development. Perhaps Widrick thought he was lending support to those who would be glad to have it.
Sphere hasn’t answered our calls since the story ran. But our publisher did get a call last week, on our production day, from Republican committee member Anne Carson, telling him that Sphere had terminated its contract to buy the old Bender melon farm. Carson called back this Monday, wanting to know why the story wasn’t in print.
On Tuesday, we received the only press release Sphere has sent since we started covering the story nearly two years ago. It is headlined, “Sphere Development Does Not Endorse Any New Scotland Candidate for Town Board.” Other media have run the release almost verbatim. In a not-so-subtle reference to The Enterprise, the release says, “Sphere Development has become very concerned with the manner in which it was portrayed to support certain candidates in the upcoming Town of New Scotland Town Board election by a local media organization.”
It goes on to imply that we have lied. We have not.
Press releases by themselves are not news. This release is one organization’s statement that runs counter to what a managing partner said earlier. The release makes us wonder if the candidates and their backers who were so outraged at our story had a hand in Sphere’s issue of the release. We won’t publish a release as a news story; that would be to use Fields’s phrase poor journalism.
The view expressed by Sphere in its release is part of a larger story, which we’ve printed on our front page. Our article in print this week is not the simple “Sphere leaves town” story that Carson and Brill may have been waiting for. According to Maura Mottolese, representing the owners of the old Bender melon farm, the contract has been terminated. The termination of a contract to sell property does not mean that the owners can’t still sell the land to the same developer, an expert told Hale Spencer.
Our reporter then asked Mottolese if terminating the contract meant the owners of the Bender melon farm and Sphere were no longer considering a transaction. A simple “yes” would have meant Sphere was no longer a potential buyer. Instead, Mottolese hedged and said, “There is no longer a contract.”
Daniel Mackay asked us if we would endorse candidates. We will not. We spend considerable time, space, effort, and the expertise of our staff to give you, the readers, as much information as we can about the issues and the candidates. You can see how your views match up with theirs and make an informed choice.
We believe there is no other media that has the depth of knowledge about the towns we cover as does The Enterprise. We encourage our readers in New Scotland, in Guilderland, and in the Hilltowns to visit our website at www.altamontenterprise.com and read our candidate profiles if you haven’t already.
Make an informed choice. Rather than shooting the messenger, read the message.
Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor