Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tale of Two Court Cases

I've been watching the development of Don Kerr's plight with interest.  Much like Bill Clinton, we knew all about Don's legal wranglings when we reelected him in 2009, but the New Paltz Times feature article update on his case has brought a lot of outrage against him to the forefront.  The timing of that article confused me, but the irony of it amused me.  The reactions of the local citizenry has been even more instructive.

Timing is everything
I've always been annoyed by the print world's habit of dating publications in a way that didn't seem to be in synch with the real world.  I understand that you're writing in advance of publication dates, but the science and business of publishing makes it possible to hit the newsstands on the same date listed on your front page.  Our local paper consistently shows up on Wednesday, but has a Thursday publication date.  Until now it was only an annoyance to a pretty pedantic fellow (your truly), but in this case it made them look downright silly.

The paper with the Thursday date gave an update on Don's legal case on Wednesday, only a few hours before the case was closed.  I have to assume that the editor and publisher didn't want to look like asses, so they obviously didn't know about that court date.  The last court date was well over a month ago.  Why did they run a story when they did?

Drawing the line between public and private
When his case first hit the news, Don Kerr claimed that elected officials have no expectation of privacy.  I would say that's true to some extent - if it's said in public or in the public record then no, no privacy.  Whatever the editorial decision drove the comical timing of the original article, covering the story was fair game.  In fact, I would have to say that it's appropriate to cover the publicly- available portion of any relevant court case pertaining to an elected official.  Probably not divorces, estates and the like, but cases which are relevant.  Don was accused of using a substance disallowed by the district he represents, so it's relevant.  Edgar Rodriguez was suing the district he represents, so it was also relevant.  Why one was covered and the other not is quite beyond my understanding.  I can guess, but you can be sure that the guess foremost on my mind would be considered libelous by the owner of Ulster Publishing.

Hypocrisy and outrage
I've been watching my Facebook feed and I've seen a lot of outrage over the Kerr case.  One person in particular was quite strident, so I reached out to her.  She had privately taken me to task for covering the Rodriguez case when That Paper would not, because she believed I was being overly intrusive by obtaining publicly-available court documents in that case.  I'm afraid my message to her (redacted below to remove personally-identifying information) was a bit strongly-worded:

I believe you're a hypocrite and I'd like to give you the chance to prove me wrong.
I would like to invite you to make a guest post on the New Paltz Gadfly regarding your feelings about Don Kerr. Be aware that I will be commenting to compare and contrast your reaction to this case with your reaction to my posts about Edgar Rodriguez.
I welcome the opportunity to a lively and public debate with someone who sees things differently than I, and I expect that the local court of public opinion will weigh in heartily.
How about it? Care to take a more visible stab at the Kerr situation?
Not surprisingly, she declined the challenge.   Apparently when Edgar is in court suing the district it's none of our business, but when Don gets pulled over for doing something that could send a mixed message it is.  I'd still like to invite someone to post on Don's situation and how they feel about it - even if that person isn't actually a hypocrite.  Agree or disagree, I will treat you with courtesy and only attack your ideas, not you personally.  I know that asking people not to resort to name-calling renders a lot of people ineligible, but I'm hoping someone can find intelligent ways to debate the topic, rather than taking cheap shots like calling Don a "lovable oaf."  Violence may be the first refuge of the incompetent, but name-calling is the first refuge of the incompetent pacifist.

Positive signs on the School Board
Edgar Rodriguez voted against Don Kerr's presidency because he thinks Don's approach to drug problems doesn't acknowledge the realities of addiction.  I didn't see that it made it to That Paper, but Don is also interested in addressing the over-the-top zero tolerance policy.  I like this; the current code of conduct rewards students for bad behavior by sending them home.  This means kids with drug problems and criminal proclivities have plenty of free time to pursue those interests, and the district washes its hands of the problem.

I fully support Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Kerr in their fight to create a rational disciplinary policy for the New Paltz Central School District.


Terence said...

After I posted this, I received another reply from my would-be debater which was more articulate. I believe she had not read this post prior to crafting this response, and I believe it indicates an overall ignorance about my approach here.

"Look, the issue is that I don't waste time discussing issues with people that are deeply entrenched to the point that they are not open to other ideas. How do you even compare Edgar to Don? Two different issues. Edgar has listened to this community (evidenced by the referendum vote) while others have pursued their own agenda and he is demonized by you and others for it. Don is a pot head who is now president of the school board and some how -some people (vast minority if you travel outside of the "Gadfly" small circle) support him. I worked for 10 years with people who lost a loved one to drunk or drugged drivers. I don't think the issue is funny nor do I find it something to even debate. Victimless?

"Your whole approach to me is obnoxious. Calling me a hypocrite? Why would I or anyone else want to engage in a debate with you? I don't think I am aggressive to people who don't agree with me. I am direct though.

"That said, I have nothing to "win" because there are no winners. The whole community suffers from your posturing and verbal masturbation. The school children gain nothing from it. It just brings everyone down including myself.

"At one time I thought discussion could make a difference. I've decided it's a waste of time particularly with you and your group of followers. I'm done! This is the last response you will get from me."

What I take from these comments is:
1 - there are very few readers of this blog (but still more than I expect)
2 - despite the fact that there are almost no readers, the "entire community" is harmed by my "verbal masturbation" (although how one can be verbal in writing is beyond me)
3 - the readers of this blog are my "followers" (a view that I invite readers to dispute; I believe that people in New Paltz are smart enough to form their own opinions as I do)

The fact that this writer assumed that I would defend Don and attack Edgar in this post tells more about her than it does me; I have done neither here today. I have attacked hypocrisy and yellow journalism, and I have defended Don and Edgar's desire to have a more sensible drug policy in the schools.

Martin McPhillips said...

Your post is well-written, Terence. There are category differences between a civil suit, where one is the plaintiff, and a criminal matter where one is the defendant in the dock. The bottom line is that the New Paltz Times covers what it feels like covering, but a pot bust is news when the person busted is a public official holding the public's trust, particularly in a school system. (And it's news either side of its dubious resolution.) Civil suits are far less obviously newsworthy. There's plenty of hypocrisy and worse at the New Paltz Times, but I don't think you have a strong case for it here.

"In days of old," as my dad liked to say, "when men were men...," Don Kerr would have gracefully resigned his position on the board upon being busted, whether his guilt had been obvious or not. I didn't expect that he would do that, but there's the honorable standard. If you are on the school board and you smoke dope, it's your obligation not to get caught. Hypocrisy is the price that vice pays to virtue.

More easy to accomplish was the second part: not accepting the nomination to be president of the school board as the case was still hanging around. Allowing the other board members to choose between a friend and the board's reputation is a discourtesy to all. As your correspondent notes, having a pot head in the top position is...unfortunate.

Kerr could have waited for the board presidency to come around again after his case was well in the rear-view mirror. That said, I didn't expect Kerr to outperform the mimetic environment in America, where doing the honorable thing is what's in the rear-view mirror.

None of this stoked my ire, until...until Kerr said that his acceptance of the plea bargain was "taking one for the team," as if making the deal instead of defending himself at trial was a gift to the school district, the board, the parents, and the kids, and not his easiest way out of a personal mess. That is just plain ludicrous and it's insulting in a town where the standard for insult from public officals is nearly unreachable. "Taking one for the team" is insulting elitist arrogance.

Yet, this is a fascinating matter with many sides to it. I don't have much use for the school board, so it's not a critical matter from my perspective. None of us are without our faults, but "taking one for the team" might be the crucial difference between letting this drift away and making it into something too big for Kerr and the board to handle. I think that comment indicated that there's a real problem here.

Ed Burke said...

Terrance, for me this is not about Don Kerr the private citizen. Private citizens everyday get in there car and speed, pay the fine, and move on with their lives. Private citizens also get in their cars and get charged with driving while impaired by drugs and unlawful possession of marijuana. As a private citizen, you wait for the process to play through and hopefully be found innocent. Don the private citizen, I am happy for him that he can put this behind him. He does a lot of volunteer work in the community and I commend him for that. I reached out to Don this morning to discuss the case but for him the matter is closed and he has nothing more to say.

For me, the issue is about the message we are sending the students of our district when our school board president can "settle" his case and "take one for the team". As a school board member in my opinion, you lose your private citizen label and are viewed as a public servant. We have a DARE program that I believe is in its last year due to funding. In this program, as my son explained it to me, they had to take a pledge and write a report about what they learned and what it meant to them. The pledge was to not take drugs or alcohol. I listened to the 7 reports that were chosen to be read, I should get you a copy of them. We are a school district that has a zero tolerance policy for students and I believe that comes directly from the school board. We should have a zero tolerance policy for our school board members and school board president. My feelings would be the same no matter who's name appears on the school board name plates.

We teach our kids to be leaders and not followers. We teach our kids to take ownership for there actions. Don should take ownership for his actions and resign from the board. By Don staying on the board we are sending the wrong message to the students of our schools. That would be taking one for the team in my opinion.

Terence said...

Thanks for your comment, Ed. My thoughts were more about whether or not the standard of privacy we extend to our elected officials is consistent, but lacking a post about Don's specific situation this not the worst forum for that topic.

What confuses me is that he was reelected with these charges out there in the open. Of course I was also amazed at the fact that some of the opposition to the Middle School renovation focused on questions that had been resoundingly answered years before, like the benefits of renovation over building anew. (I didn't have any trouble understanding the concerns over cost.)

I wish I knew what it was that got people to wake up and pay attention every so often. It's a peculiar human trait.

Ed Burke said...

Terrance, yes he was re-elected. I am not sure what confuses you about his re-election as there were 3 open seats and 3 people ran. Don receieved the fewest amount of votes (although not a huge difference between KT and Dan). I can honestly tell you that I was not aware that Don had a pending case out there during his re-election and I am not in the minority on this. If he was innocent of these charges like he claims, he should have fought them.

Drug and alcohol use by kids in our community is a know fact (as well as just about every other community). By Don staying on the board, you will in my opinion tie the hands of the principals & staff of our Middle School and High School from reaching and helping the kids who need it. Think about the conversation someone from the district would have with a kid caught with marijuana on them. Our zero tolerance policy comes from the school board.

Terence said...

There's a lot to pay attention to, that's true. The New Paltz Times covered his case at the time of his arrest, but not during his reelection bid nor when a mistrial in the case was declared. They did, however, decide to pick a random week to cover it over a month after the most recent newsworthy development (the mistrial). They seem to be consistent in their desire to avoid covering relevant court cases during the school board election cycle, I will give them that!

I'm just grateful that both Don and Edgar have indicated that they believe the district's present policy about drugs isn't working. I wholeheartedly agree with both of them on that score.

Ed Burke said...

I disagree that it was a random week. They ran it the week that he was elected School Board President. I cannot speak for the writer or the paper, but the title in the paper from July 15th is "See no evil-New Paltz School Board overlooks Don Kerr's pending drug charges and appoints him board president". The mistrial wasn't the newsworthy event, the fact that he was elected School Board President with this still outstanding was.

I must say I agree with Martin, Don should not have accepted the nomination until the issue was resolved. Had he done that, none of this would be an issue at the current moment and he would have been able to have his day in court and clear his name. That would have been another opportunity for him to take one for the team.

Terence said...

I guess I didn't look at the board presidency as being particularly newsworthy, since it's all decided ahead of time, but you make a good point, Ed. However, the New Paltz Times itself could have done the responsible thing and covered it when it would have been most relevant to the voters - during the last election.

Peter said...

Sorry to hijack this unrelated thread but last night's "Joint Town-Village Board Meeting" was such a fiasco! I watched on tv for almost three hours as, first, the Village Mayor and Deputy Mayor walked out, then two Village Trustees retreated to the audience rather than sit at the table with the Town Board. Then the Supervisor unveiled her until-then-hidden-agenda. A self-described "Albany Lawyer" came forward with the Fire Chief to plan how they were going to move forward in creating a new government in New Paltz, a Fire District with its own government and taxing authority.
Hours of wrangling and arguing and posturing and bullying ensued during which the Town Board didn't distinguish itself as a body that could think or act for itself.
The Town Supervisor is the point person for this fiasco, and deserves public criticism for the dictatorial and secretive way that she works.
No good can come from schemes like this.

Steve Greenfield said...

Could you repost a new message on the original topic? The comments are focused on a different topic, and the list too long for anyone entering now to steer the topic back without the thread becoming unfathombable.

What I have learned thus far is this: people tend to give unqualified support to their friends regardless of the issue. The person who wrote to you about Edgar doesn't care one bit whether the public has a right to know whether or not someone running for office -- twice -- has a stark conflict of interest with the conduct of that office, because Edgar is a friend. He or she also has no interest in what led to the CPS visit in the first place. That's surely as relevant to qualification to serve a school board as anything else, and the findings, positive or negative, as much an issue as those being debated about Don Kerr. If Don has no expectation of privacy, neither should Edgar. If speeding is a bad standard for school board, so is failing to provide proper supervision to a school child and not getting him to school -- in fact, it could be argued that the latter, being directly school-related, is more relevant. If Edgar has the right to protect his teenaged son from public discussion about his father because the child's status is part and parcel with the father's situation, so does Don's.

But the two situations are not actually analogous. The questions some members of the public are raising about Don Kerr are moral ones, not legal ones. With Edgar, the questions were about conflict of interest, that is, actual conduct in office, failure to provide honest service, whether or not the best work effort can be expected from someone who is angry with the others for forcing him to argue his specious case in front of judges (twice, with no news story either time) and be embarrassed by the outcomes, etc. So the two situations are not analogous.

As an elected official, I'm not in the symbolism business. I'm in the getting-the-public's-work-done business. That's why the NP Times story on the one, but not the other, totally sucks and cannot simply be explained by double standard -- or oversight. It is known that an NP Times reporter covered Edgar's lawsuit -- at his editor's request -- prior to the Middle School vote, but the paper, upon reading what the reporter had learned, scuttled the story so as not to have questions about the source of Edgar's dissent "influence" the outcome of the vote. Then they buried the story between the Middle School vote and Edgar's re-election effort, for the same reason, and went the extra distance of refusing to publish letters from the public on the topic for the same reason. That means the paper deliberately chose to manipulate public information relevant to two elections. I guess when you have a monopoly you can do that and get away with it. But it's the children who suffer the consequences in their education, and the taxpayers in their finances. Now even more of the Middle School roof is falling down, and the public is picking up the tab, piecemeal, without a long-range plan, and not at the best rates, as it will continue to do as the aged building continues in its deterioration, and with substantial rent on the District Office paid indefinitely into the future as no on-campus space can be made available due to the public's poorly informed choice to not act.