Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beau-Coup Attempt

The Gang of 12 showed the level of its business acumen and concern for employees last week when it attempted a preemptive strike against the editor of the Chestnut Hill Local, Pete Mazzaccaro. What a remarkable list of deeply-thought-out questions they presented that Thursday evening. More on this later.

First the news, then the background
We learn this week that after the failed vote to remove Pete Mazzaccaro as editor, two of the directors removed themselves from the board - Pam Learned and Mike Hickey have resigned their seats. As we count it, 24 seats are up from grab this spring. An interlocking seat is open. As an aside, this time the ballots have to be held for a while. No quick destruction like last year's fiasco.

The Buildup
On Wednesday, January 21, 2008, Chestnut Hill Local editor Pete Mazzaccaro received an email communication from Chestnut Hill Community Association President Tolis Vardakis demanding his appearance before the CHCA Board of Directors at the monthly meeting on Thursday January 22, 2008. In short, Mazzaccaro would be asked to answer a series of interrogatories which were included in a two-page attachment to the demand letter. The questions are included in this post; below the first few paragraphs.

In a message NN received from an observer, were the following comments: "The nature of these questions runs the gamut from wanting his opinion on the actions of others, through challenges to the veracity of letter and opinion writers who have appeared in the Local, to major policy issues as to where an editor’s responsibility begins and ends at the Chestnut Hill Local."

Our sources confirm that Mazzacarro "had just completed his annual personnel review with this same board in December 2007 and had responded as requested... this 11th hour foray into unrelated territory (was) puzzling, to the say the least."

They advised: "Considering that none of what was outlined in the letter had anything to do with producing a professional and timely news and editorial product, and that the Chestnut Hill Local has had held up extremely well in a market that has seen both major and local newspapers falter and actually fail, we can only wonder what purpose can be served by this appearance."

"The operating policies of the Local, while debated from time to time over the years, are settled in the Lentz Policy and in the By-Laws as amended, the issues raised in these prepared interrogatories would have to be discussed and debated in the larger forum of the entire association, if at all."

The sources said they advised Mazzaccaro to "decline to respond in the manner requested and suggest that if President Vardakis or others wish to have these or other related questions addressed to Mazzaccaro debated or discussed, we print them in the Local and he will respond in print with his conclusions, if he feels qualified to comment. Another more democratic process could include printing the questions in advance in the Local and then, with proper advance notice in the board meeting agenda, the membership and public would be invited to a special board meeting where the issues would be discussed in open forum, not in executive session."

Copies of the two-page question list have been circulating in the Chestnut Hill community since last Friday. In addition, several other interesting e-mails and another letter have been passed around for perusal.

"These are not personnel matters, but ones that relate to policy and fundamental journalistic free speech issues. They go far beyond the interview of one individual in a closed meeting that is not preceded by formalized public notice."

The Meeting is Held
On Thursday, Jan 22, "an 11th hour illegal CHCA executive session presented a scripted attempt at a renewed Spanish Inquisition followed by a kangaroo court that voted on a motion to fire Pete on the spot. The effort was led by Dina Hitchcock, Ned Mittinger and new member Pam Learned."

We have learned that a "protracted discussion/argument took the meeting to 11:30 and the vote against dismissal was only by a 2 vote margin - - but that in itself was a reversal of recent trends, considering that some board members that walked out in disgust would most likely have voted against the dismissal."

The vote was 14-12 against firing Mazzaccaro.

Said a source: "A cadre of newly installed and previous board members heavily containing those from the business district are driving the plan to dismember the newspaper once again. I think it will be imperative to get this action into the public domain as it can be the first plank in a platform for the next election."

"I think they overplayed their hand this time and some folks on that board “got religion” and decided that they could no longer stand the deceit and duplicitous behavior. At this point I agree ... we may have crossed the Rubicon and can form a slate that will take these people on from the facts..."

We now post, with assorted responses, the collected studied thoughts and queries from this group for your discussion and comment. Perhaps the next board of directors meeting would be an appropriate place to probe the officers and executive committee members about these topics.

The Questions, from the two-page list presented by the CHCA leadership

1. In a recent blog, Joel Hoffman (a Local staff writer) speculated that Rob Remus' motivation in volunteering to help improve the Local's operating practices was to displace a current real estate advertiser from a prime spot in the Local in favor of ads for his own employer.
a. When a Local employee publically (sic) suggests, with no factual basis, that a board member is attempting to displace a current advertiser from an important spot in the CH Local, is he putting at risk the relationship between the Local and that advertiser?

Perhaps they might recall a certain meeting where the aforementioned Remus made note of the real estate ad placement at an in-house meeting with certain Local staff. As for factual basis, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck, well...

Easy answer. No. Said board member is not known for being on staff at the Local. The risk is in the relationship between that board member and the advertisers' community.

b. Does the fact that the employee, while proclaiming his insider status at the Local, publishes these opinions outside of the Local mean that no harm to the Local has been generated?

No foul, no harm. In fact, it lends credence to the concept that the Local operates independently of the board. And given what has transpired, that is an especially good thing.

c. Should a manager (the editor in this case) inform an employee that putting the employer's financial relationships at risk, regardless of venue, is incompatible with long-term employment at that employer?

One supposes the editor might inform the board that its behavior harms the financial health of the Local.

2. Acknowledging mistaken reports, and correcting false assertions in op-ed pieces.

a. Regarding the Hoffmann report in the Local on the CHCA November board meeting specifically the treasurer's report in which Mr. Hoffmann failed to report one significant fact and falsely reported another. The question is does the editor have an obligation to publically (sic) acknowledge those mistakes in the next issue? Or is a correction by the misquoted party in a letter to the editor considered adequate?

Oh, Lord. must we go through this again? Errors are made and corrections are issued, either by the slighted party or the paper. That the error was noted serves as sufficient to complete the act of contrition. Besides, it's often hard to tell what the real story is when one listens to a CHCA board meeting.

b. Regarding the op-ed piece by Ed Feldman in which Mr. Feldman falsely suggested that Ed Berg's resigned to avoid unwanted consequences of staying on the board. The editor was present at the meeting in which Mr. Berg announced that his move to New Jersey meant he could no longer serve on the board, yet did not append an editor's note reporting that fact. Instead the "correction" had to be made by Mr. Berg in a reply in the next week's edition of the Local. If Mr. Berg had had not had occasion to write a reply, would the correction have ever been made?

See answer above to 2a.

3. When a CH Local editor publishes an op-ed author (Ed Feldman) who the editor acknowledges fraudulently claims to be a reporter for the Local, is the editor putting the interests of the newspaper at risk?

Seems like that's a no brainer. No. I am an Admiral in the Queen's Navy. If you are dumb enough to believe it ...

4. Self-reporting of conflict of interest. Regarding the coverage of Jimmy Pack's employment termination: In failing to note his long-term friendship with Mr. Pack, is the editor doing the reader a disservice?

Answer: As much as failing to note the editor's short-term friendship with the rest of the staff. Or his propensity to drinking his coffee black with two sugars. Or his beloved Red Sox. Or being a Connecticut Yankee.

5. CHCF reporting. This editor, in a series of emails with the chair of the CHCF trustees several months ago, agreed to talk to the chair to get the facts when the CHCF became a topic in the paper. When the editor subsequently published opinion pieces about the CHCF, without contacting the CHCF chair, was the editor serving the interests of the reader?

A story is a story. An opinion piece is an opinion piece. Comics are comics. It's up to the CHCF person to speak up. That's the nature of a forum. Point, counterpoint. You know, dialogue. Speak up and own up to it.

6. Balance in op-ed pieces. If the editor perceives a lack of balance in op-ed pieces, is it the editor's responsibility to solicit countervailing opinions, or is it acceptable for the editor to wait for opposing contributions?

Answer 1, No. Answer 2, yes. Thank you for trying to understand public comments. If people have something to say, they should say it in public (and not wait until in Executive Session with the attendant secrecy under the unitary executive governance process).

7. When the editor is required to produce a quarterly report of the number and column-inches of op-ed pieces, by author, and has not done so after 6 months, how should that affect the assessment of his job performance? Does the lack of reporting harm the intelligent assessment of balance in opinion pieces in the Local?

Quick answer. No. Answer after semi-deep thought. Why the hell is someone asking the editor to measure column inches of opinion? Bigger ain't better. Think of the Gettysburg Address, with Lincoln following the 13,607-word drone of Edward Everett with a two-minute work of art. Quality, not quantity.

Management Personnel Issues

8. When two employees use their own equipment to take pictures for the Local, but only one is said an extra fee for the pictures, and is allowed to maintain property rights for those pictures, is hat a management failure? If the employee not being paid extra is a member of a protected class (say non-white, or female), is the manager exposing the employer to discrimination charge?

Oh, no. They did not say that. They did not write that. Did they? And no amount of winking is gonna let that one slide. Reminds me of a time at a board meeting a few years ago when someone made a comment about "those people." Classless. And clueless. As for an answer, you are kidding, right? Staff, freelance, contributor. We all work together. Novel concept, eh?

9. Regarding the hostile comments made by one Local employee against other CHCA employees 1 August of 2008. When a manager is informed, in writing, of employee behavior that creates a hostile work environment, and generates no documentation of whether and how he addressed he issue, is that manager putting his employer at risk?

Alleged hostile comments, one might say. A poll of the Local staff might find a question of who may be responsible for a hostile workplace. There are grave doubts the alleged perpetrator would be named by any on staff. But that's only staff talking.

10. When a manager refuses, after two requests by his employer (the CHCA president), to document an event he witnessed in which an employee shoved his employer, is that manager failing his duties to his employer? Does that refusal to document contribute to a hostile work environment? On the other hand, if that manager were to witness a board member shoving an employee, would it be responsible to fail to report that event?

Again, an alleged event. Given the situation on Germantown Avenue a few weeks ago when an alleged verbal exchange occurred, when a board member was present at the exchange and allegedly stood by passively, and a pair of police calls having been made a few days later by staff members afraid because of the actions in the Local office of the board member (who was one of the parties in the two-person shouting match), there are problems. Sadly, the XB glossed over that last issue.

11. In October of 2007, Moss Disston (treasurer) predicted a budget shortfall of $21,000. The editor offered personnel cuts and reduction of costs as well as a commitment to submit plans to increase revenues. After the CHCA president negotiated a reduction in rent, the Editor reneged n the cuts, did not reduce costs, and never presented plans to improve revenues. The Local lost 27,900 for said year, even though the cost of rent was $3,000 below budget. What does it say bout the relationship and accountability between the staff editor and the board, his employer, when working cooperatively with the Editor, when the Board's budget is ignored, and contributes a loss to the organization?

Simple solutions to simple problems. First, the Local stops paying $15,000 a year for Community Manager services. Second, the Local contracts out its bookkeeping services instead of paying $19,000 a year to the CHCA bookkeeper. Third, instead of paying $25,000 a year for its current rental site, the Local negotiates a deal with a Chestnut Hill real estate holder for new digs. Remember, these numbers are approximate (but close). And maybe the paper also asks the provider of the grant for the Community Association office staffer to switch her funding to a newspaper position. Voila. Big changes. We ask you, which operation is solvent and which one is feeding off the work of the other?

End of the questions (from the board, that is).

Self Disclosure: The author of this post is a Red Sox fan, drinker of beer and bourbon, likes cats, used to hunt and fish, is a friend of Jimmy J. Pack Jr. and reads Eschaton daily. He is from New England, too.

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