Jackson County Times

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

What Really Happened at the Mayors’ Meeting—The Rest of the Story

A misleading and partially false news release from State Senator Al Lawson’s congressional campaign has placed the fledgling new organization of mayors in Jackson County into a controversial situation.

Malone Mayor Gene Wright, the chairman of the new group which met last Thursday in the Marianna city commission meeting room, served a full-course supper to everyone, but, for all his efforts, wound up with egg on his face.

The meeting was covered by no media except the TIMES and Lawson’s one-hour speech to the group was well-received. One of Lawson’s press officials (one attended the meeting taking several photos) seized the opportunity to brag to the local media, reporting that the organization’s members had “unanimously endorsed” the senator in his campaign against U.S. Rep Allen Boyd for the District 2 Democratic nomination, a contest Lawson lost on Tuesday. Lawson is term-limited from running again for the Legislature.

The TIMES received the press release Friday afternoon and a decision was reached by staff to disregard it, as it had clearly originated from Lawson himself and was deemed to be too self serving in content. The TIMES does not publish news releases from politicians on controversial issues, like electioneering. However, the news release was published in the Sunday, Aug. 22 edition of another local paper. That’s when the stew hit the fan. Monday morning, the phones at the TIMES started ringing from the calls of mayors who didn’t attend the meeting, such as Graceville’s Charles Holman who resented the fact that the JCAM may have acted wrongfully. A TIMES examination of the matter has shown that the mayors at the meeting were not in the wrong but may have been misled, or tricked into an “endorsement” when all they did was have a show of hands for those who favored Lawson, and that show of hands just happened to be unanimous among those in attendance.

Therefore, since all mayors would have to vote before a vote was truly “unanimous,” no real endorsement was made. The raised hands, from Bascom’s Ann Bryan, Campbellton’s Aggie Curry, Sneads’ Mike Weeks, Alford’s George Gay and Grand Ridge’s Kim Applewhite, were merely asked who they would endorse if it were up to them. It was not, and is not an official JCAM endorsement. The JCAM is an advisory panel with no binding legal authority. A similar group was formed in the 1980s, led by a Marianna city commissioner and was intended as a liaison to the county commission but with no legal power.

The newspaper published a correction, of sorts, in a Tuesday front page article entitled, “Mayors group backs off endorsement.” But that headline and parts of the article may be misleading also, since there was no true endorsement and therefore, no reason for the mayors to “back off” from something they did not do. News releases or press releases are sent to the media always from private, or “public” interests and notoriously contain “spin” or outright bias. It is more responsible for the media to cover the issues with their staff members, opt to not cover the issue or event, or to let readers know the sources of any information published. Had that happened with the mayor’s meeting, no clarifications would have been necessary. A local radio station also disseminated the flawed news release.

Had more reporters attended the event, they would have learned a whole lot more about what Lawson’s press official called in the news release “the final days of a heated campaign.” In fact, that campaign, on both sides, has been downright nasty. At that mayors’ meeting, Lawson told a very interesting story of efforts by Boyd’s organization to buy Lawson off with a lucrative offer of a state job. Lawson said that Boyd had ordered, or persuaded, FSU President T.K. Wetherell to offer Lawson a job, perhaps as athletic director at $150,000 per year, if Lawson would not run against Boyd. “That would have been a nice raise for me,” Lawson said. “But I turned (Wetherell) down.” Lawson said that afterwards, he received a similar offer from the president of FAMU, also at Boyd’s bequest. If true, this situation would closely parallel the instance where Congress is currently investigating whether any laws were broken if the Obama administration did in fact offer Joe Sestak a federal job to not run against Sen. Arlen Specter this year. Arlen Specter subsequently lost that race to Sestak.

Lawson did “back off” his “endorsement” of the controversial new state septic tank crackdown law, disliked by almost everyone except the septic tank industry. “I voted for that bill,” he said. Then he explained that he had not read a last-minute addendum that required inspections for all the state’s septic tanks, not just those in the vicinity of natural springs used for recreation. Lawson said he would do all he could to fix the bill, passed with the unethical support from the septic tank industry, and help rural residents avoid unnecessary replacement costs, but he admitted that “the environmentalists have jumped all over this” with their powerful support. Fresh water is actually the top issue in state politics today, Lawson said.

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