Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Douglas here.
In August 2002, Baltimore Sun reporter Del Wilber broke the news that Baltimore's Police Commissioner, Ed Norris, had used an "off-the-books departmental fund to finance more than $178,000 in expenses." Expectedly, Maryland's political establishment rallied to Norris' side against the hated Sun.
What surprised me was the reaction by many of the Sun's media brethren. Where I smelled a rat, their noses didn't twitch. Where I saw smoke indicating fire, they were blinded by Norris' badge.
Wilber kept digging at the Sun, and I turned the heat up via my talk radio gig at WBAL in Baltimore. And while my bosses backed me publicly, privately they warned I'd missed the mark. They said Norris was well-liked and respected, and I should ease up. I turned the heat higher.
My sense of smell proved true. Norris was indicted, pleaded guilty and went to prison.
The Norris storyline - combined with those of political corruption, drugs, failing schools and the sorry state of the media in Baltimore - became fodder for David Simon's "The Wire" on HBO. Simon, having a delicious sense of irony, gave Norris a role in "The Wire" - both before and after his prison time.
In another ironic twist, Norris is now a Baltimore talk radio host. Meanwhile, Del's doggedness earned him a beat at the Washington Post where, I suspect, he dreams of being the next Bob Woodward. And me, well, I'm here penning a column and dreaming of catching monster cutthroat trout. Don't tell Norris or Del, but I think I made out best.
So, what's the point?
I'm fairly confident in my olfactory abilities when it comes to sniffing out shenanigans by those in power. My sense of smell for political impropriety was honed on corruption I investigated in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
From D.C. Mayor Marion Barry (who out-Spitzered Spitzer by smoking crack during his hotel tryst) to Interior Secretary James Watt (indicted for perjury before Congress) to President Clinton's transgressions, I got a noseful of the putrid underbelly of politics as both an investigator and journalist.
Pointing my schnoz in the direction of Harwigs - where members of the Steamboat Springs City Council gather after Tuesday night meetings - all I smell is beer and wine mixed with a dash of civility. Civility so lacking in the last council, it caused voters enough indigestion to throw that casserole out and start again with fresh ingredients.
So, I was surprised to read the Steamboat Today's chesty editorial Wednesday calling for the council to "put an end to the Harwigs meetings." Where a cautionary reminder to not discuss official matters would have sufficed, the editorial amounted to execution by firing squad prior to a full investigation. Quite simply, the editorial smacks of ready, shoot, aim.
While the editorial demonstrates sound instincts in questioning whether the council's one-stop pub crawl violates the letter or intent of Colorado's Sunshine Laws, the conclusion is not supported by the underlying facts. Indeed, the only article about the alleged illegal gatherings is more notable for what is not evidenced than what is.
Certainly, the article contains a subjective opinion of illegality by one councilman, Steve Ivancie. Equally certain, the article doesn't contain any specific evidence of illegality. Indeed, Ivancie, after indicting fellow council members with a list of perceived wrongdoings, acknowledges he has no actual proof of illegality or impropriety, concluding, "I just know that the temptation is there." That tidbit may speak more of past practice than illuminating current malfeasance.
Finally, while it would have been helpful had the reporter sought an outside expert in this area of the law - instead of only quoting those with a dog in the fight - City Attorney Tony Lettunich did state the gatherings are legal.
Legality aside, is there an appearance of impropriety as the Steamboat Today concludes? That's a question that requires balancing various factors. Given the public location of the gatherings and the stated intent of fostering congeniality in the shadow of a time when there was none, a call to completely abolish the gatherings is overkill.
But, should the Editorial Board disagree, I'd be happy to sit down and discuss this after the official workday.
May I suggest Harwigs?