In small towns, relationships matter

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Posted 6/12/18 (Tue)

Whines & Roses
By Cecile Wehrman

Many times, I’ve thought Crosby’s must be among the most examined of small town governments anywhere. We never miss a council meeting. The same is pretty true in Tioga and Ray. City government is at the center of a great deal that is important to our readers. But Wildrose?
Few are the city council meetings we’ve attended in Wildrose -- until recently. 
Despite its distinction of being almost smack between Tioga and Crosby -- and having subscribers sprinkled pretty evenly between The Journal and Tioga Tribune -- our coverage of that community has tended through the years to center more on features about people or storm damage or even, years ago, fireworks.
Fireworks of a different kind erupted in Wildrose last week. As a city election approached, all kinds of people were publishing information they wanted to share -- including anonymous letters charging our newspapers with bias.
While our policy has always been not to give space or time to anonymous complaints, those letters actually made us part of the story in a way that’s becoming all too common these days -- blame the press.
Reporting in a small community puts you in touch with just about everybody at one time or another, but that doesn’t mean we’re personal friends or socialize with those people after hours. The person you meet for a feel-good story about rescue horses one day may turn out six months later to be the person in the middle of a small town controversy. Having had a positive experience with press treatment in a feature story, it’s likely that person will cooperate with the press when information is needed on more controversial subjects.
That’s been exactly the case as Journal Publishing reporter Brad Nygaard has followed -- after initial reporting by former Tribune reporter Marcus White -- a tangled series of events in Wildrose, involving the firing of former auditor Tricia Potteiger and subsequent infractions of open meetings laws after her departure. Good reporters are supposed to cultivate sources, share information, be cordial, and maybe even crack a few jokes in the process of discussing the story at hand. A reporter may even commiserate with people on both sides of an issue. It’s how you gain trust and get reactions from people.
Last week, in one of the anonymous letters mailed to residents in Wildrose, screen shots of digital messages passed between Tricia Potteiger and Brad Nygaard were disseminated along with charges of collusion and bias by the newspaper. The exchange covers much of the same ground in the same language as was ultimately reported in the newspaper, but the letter insinuates that because communication occurred between a source and a reporter something unfair took place.
Prop that information against the backdrop of an alleged physical altercation between the current city auditor and the wife of a council candidate at the post office, along with concern at the appearance of city involvement in distributing these missives, and suddenly, it’s as if the swamp moved from Washington, D.C. to little old Wildrose. 
As of this writing, we’ve been told by the Williams County Sheriff’s Department that the complaint about Potteiger’s Facebook account being accessed is closed. This, despite a deputy’s report that Wildrose City Auditor Sophia Reisig knew Potteiger was still signed in on the city’s computer when Potteiger was locked out of city hall six months ago.
It defies credulity to come up with any explanation for the dissemination of Potteiger’s messages other than the city’s equipment beingused in some way to share it. That may not be a crime -- but if city resources were used in any way to reproduce the letters those screen shots ultimately showed up on, it could be.
We know the city’s computer is still in the hands of investigators, but they aren’t saying why.
Who paid for the postage to have these letters delivered? What was the source of the mailing list used to address them and print the labels on the envelopes?
When it comes to city business, as former Council member Roger Skarphol said last week, “it’s not that hard to do it clean and be done with it.”
That goes for reporting too. It doesn’t matter much what we say off the cuff to a source. It does matter that what’s printed in the paper is factual and that it carries the name of the reporter staking their reputation on its accuracy.
That’s why we don’t print anonymous letters. If you aren’t willing to put your name on it, you have zero credibility.