The hidden cost of keeping silent

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2000

At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, don't you just hate it when 1) newspapers expose corruption in government or industry, 2) their investigation turns out to have been flawed, but 3) they dig in their heels and say: "We stand by our story."?

That's like saying, "We reserve the right to be wrong," or, "It would kill us to admit we made a mistake."

At the Juneau Empire, we'll stand by our stories when we are sure we are right and we'll admit our mistakes when we realize we are wrong. There will be times when admitting we goofed will hurt our pride. Better a blow to our pride than the loss of the trust you put in this newspaper.

I offer that preface to set up this observation: We did not do as good a job as we should have in reporting how far $1.1 million in sales tax receipts would go toward building a "bare-bones" ice rink if Proposition 2 passed on Oct. 3.

As a result, we and some people who voted in favor of Proposition 2 got a bad surprise after the measure was approved. Our reporting contributed to a widely shared belief that $1.1 million from sales tax combined with $300,000 raised by the Douglas Fourth of July Committee would be enough, or very nearly enough, to build a "bare-bones" ice rink.

We were wrong. If we had done our job more thoroughly, we could have provided a better explanation of how far $1.4 million would go toward a "bare-bones" ice rink. Voters could have made a more informed choice. The sales tax still might have passed, but maybe not.

Our presumption about how far the money would go was shattered the morning after the votes were counted when Parks and Rec Director Kim Kiefer told us another $2 million would be needed for even the most basic facility. Some voters did not take the news of the additional cost in stride. Some were upset, feeling they had been the victims of a bait-and-switch con pulled off by they weren't quite sure who.

To reiterate, the Empire had not withheld details of the greater cost of an ice rink. We just missed 'em. We followed somebody's lead on the ice rink issue when we should have been out in front.

Whose lead were we following?

City Manager Dave Palmer, responding to citizen backlash about the additional money needed for the rink, said the Empire dropped the ball. He called last Friday to point out the fact the rink would cost more than $3 million was included in the CBJ Voter Information pamphlet mailed to every address in town.

He's right. In the second-to-last sentence on a page of small print under the bold headline "Ice Arena and Recreational Facility at Savikko Park: $1.1 million," the pamphlet informs voters: "Preliminary cost estimates put total project cost at $3 million before any volunteer contributions are factored in."

In summary, that's a $1.1 million ice rink in bold print and a $3 million cost estimate in small print.

More important, Mr. Palmer said the Empire had had a reporter at the Aug. 7 assembly meeting at which the cost of the ice rink was discussed "and it was made clear this was not a $1.1 million project."

"The reporter did not get that in the paper and that's unfortunate," he said last Friday before someone who sounded a lot like Dave Palmer called Word of Mouth and said exactly the same thing.

Mr. Palmer is right again. The city's official minutes of the assembly's Aug. 7 meeting show the ice rink and its cost were discussed by Mr. Palmer, Mayor Dennis Egan, Deputy Mayor John MacKinnon and assembly members Dwight Perkins, Frankie Pillifant, Don Etheridge Jr. and Ken Koelsch. The cost of the ice rink was placed variously at $1.1 million, $1.4 million and $1.7 million. In summary, according to the city's official minutes, Mr. MacKinnon said: "The $1.1M should be changed to $1.4M because they (rink supporters) have $300,000 available. That would bring the total project up to $1.7(M)."

On Sunday, Aug. 13, an article about the ice rink played across the top of the Empire's front page. In the fourth paragraph, we quoted Rich Poor, president of the Douglas Fourth of July Committee, saying: "A bare-bones facility will need about $1.4 million." The Empire did not quote anyone contradicting Mr. Poor, who we believed was using the correct cost figures based on the assembly meeting less than a week earlier.

When did City Manager Palmer realize the assembly, the Empire and ice rink supporters were using a misleadingly low figure likely to be more attractive to voters? If he had wanted to set the record straight, he could have called us any time beginning in early August. Instead, three days after the election he complained the Empire had failed to report the correct, higher cost of the rink beginning with our coverage of the Aug. 7 assembly meeting.

I believe the Empire reported the facts as we believed them based on the Aug. 7 assembly meeting and on comments from the rink's supporters and that the costs discussed by assembly members and by the rink supporters turned out to be wrong.

If Mr. Palmer knew the higher cost all along, knew we and the rink's supporters had it wrong, and knew our mistake improved chances for passage of the sales tax, I believe he should not have kept silent nor complained about our coverage after the election.

Steve Reed is the managing editor of the Juneau Empire.

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