Tuesday morning, our office received a phone call from an individual wanting to know if we had a reporter at the County Commissioners meeting. “They’re ripping you pretty good,” he informed us. Actually, the caller was referring to Commissioner Dwayne Voegeli, who indeed had many uncomplimentary things to say about the Post and the news coverage or our reporter, Sarah Elmquist, in particular. After promising he would keep it brief, Voegeli want on at great lengths, accusing us, among many other things, of mingling editorial opinion in our reporting, while seeking information from and quoting only Commissioner Marcia Ward, a notable critic of the county wind turbine project.
He claimed he could count on one hand the number of times Post reporter Sara Elmquist had ever contacted him about the turbine story, and actually asked Sarah in the future to contact someone other than Ward in regard to it. Sarah, he said, was an extremely unprofessional reporter, and the Post was not a serious newspaper, whose editorial pages were filled with the “silly, goofy, and way-out.”
Where to start? Perhaps the easiest observation to make here is that an elected county official who interrupts a public meeting, in which he is taking part, to berate and abuse a reporter present and covering that meeting, has little latitude to accuse others of unprofessional behavior. If his phone line has not been buzzing with inquiry from our reporter, it might have something to do with the fact that this is not the first time that he has abused her in this fashion, and has been guilty, in addition, of not returning phone calls in a timely fashion.
Aside from that, a quick review of Post coverage of the county wind project story (consult winonapost.com and search “turbine”) will reveal a multitude of sources and much solid reporting by Elmquist on this issue over more than three years, although Voegeli complained, incorrectly, of a high turnover in Post reporters. Unlike any other reporter on the county beat, Elmquist has covered this story from its near beginning and knows it backwards and forwards. Voegeli, in running down our supposedly biased and unprofessional coverage, in the same breath complained that Minnesota Public Radio had picked up on it, and that the Winona Daily News had then rerun that story. (And so much for his further complaint that, “the Post is a good example of the free press, if you own your own newspaper,” whatever he could have meant by that.)
And regarding the distinction between editorial and news coverage – the Winona County wind turbine project is getting negative publicity for a lot of very simple reasons. People naturally wonder why, if there is such an opportunity here, wouldn’t private developers come forward to take advantage of it? What earthly business has the county in taking a flyer on the production of electric energy? Who is this anonymous investor who will reap the benefits (largely unknown to the public) for the first ten years, and on what basis was this individual chosen? And no matter who one contacts, there are no solid, consistent answers as to the economics of this deal. For most people, the Winona County wind project does not pass the smell test. Government getting cozy with anonymous private investors in a closed, no-bid process gives the flat appearance of impropriety, cronyism, and corruption. It is an appearance that generally does not mislead. Any astute politician should know that and avoid such a situation as if his career depended on it.
It would appear that Voegeli thought he was going to look like a hero with this turbine scheme, perhaps ride it to higher office. Instead, he is getting a lot of rotten egg blown on his face.
Now that, Mr. Voegeli, is editorial comment.