Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Public Officials and Private Actions

August 7, 2007, 5:30 p.m.

The Press-Citizen vs. Auditor Tom Slockett

[Disclosure and background: While I admire both the editorial writers at the Press-Citizen and the leadership role played by Tom Slokett in progressive innovations in Iowa county auditors' offices, I have talked with neither side regarding this matter. I have never been with Tom Slockett when he was consuming alcohol, and during every meeting I have ever had with him at the Auditor's office he has seemed to me very much on top of his job.]

An editorial in this morning's Iowa City Press-Citizen calls for the resignation of Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett. Editorial, "County Auditor Should Resign After Pleading Guilty to Drunk Driving," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 7, 2007, p. A11.

The editorial discusses some issues but raises a great many more.

Newspapers' Constitutional Rights to Attack Public Officials. There is no question that the paper has the constitutional right to attack or otherwise personally embarrass publicly anyone it chooses -- subject only to the remedies of defamation, which in the case of public officials is constitutionally protected up to the point that it goes beyond the First Amendment standard (New York Times v. Sullivan) of "actual malice" (publishing something knowing it to be false, or exercising "reckless disregard" with regard to its truth).

Newspapers' Standards of Ethics and Decency. According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics,
Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. . . .
— Be sensitive [regarding] those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that . . . people have a . . . right to control information about themselves [private citizens more than public officials]. . . .Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Did the Press-Citizen violate its profession's Code of Ethics with this story? I wouldn't charge as much. But the least one might note is that the editorial at least raises some issues of privacy, decency and "good taste."

Consistency and Conflicts. It would be troublesome if the Press-Citizen's past opposition to Tom Slockett's re-election, or some displeasure they have had with him unrelated to the performance of his job, played a role in its now calling for his resignation on grounds of DWI. I am unaware of a consistency in the paper's calling for the resignation of other public officials following a DWI charge -- or any other violation of law (e.g., speeding tickets (as excessive speed also potentially endangers the lives of others), a significant number of parking tickets (which would also reflect a scofflaw's approach to the law)). President George Bush has acknowledged a drunk driving arrest. Iowa legislators (as well as those in Washington) -- from the past and now serving -- have been arrested for driving under the influence or have been otherwise known to have "a drinking problem." (When I was in Washington there were some members of the House and Senate you simply didn't call on for any serious purpose after about 11:00 in the morning.) Does the Press-Citizen really believe all of these officials should have resigned? What other behavior, legal and illegal, does the paper believe should be the basis for its calling for the resignations of public officials?

The Nation's Number One Hard Drug Problem: Alcohol Although I have been blessed with the absence of any personal problems regarding alcohol, few in this community have been more critical than I of our local failure to do anything meaningful about its consequences -- including the hazards of drunk driving. Alcohol is by any measure our nation's number one hard drug: number of persons affected directly and indirectly, its involvement in domestic violence and roughly half of all crime and prisoners, the permanent damage it can do to the brain and other organs, and its multi-billion-dollar adverse economic impact.
I don't claim to remember all Press-Citizen editorials and news stories, so I may be wrong. But was this editorial simply a sub-set, an example, in a long-standing anti-drunk driving campaign by the paper? I am unaware of such. Has the paper advocated a reduction in the number of bars in Iowa City (a multiple of those in Ames)? I don't think so. Has the paper campaigned regarding the absurdity of permitting anyone under the age of 21 to enter establishments the only (or primary) purpose of which is to sell alcohol (knowing that many underage -- illegal -- students are drinking there)? Not that I can recall. So as wrong as drunk driving may be, it appears that this editorial was not part of the paper's positions regarding alcohol abuse in general but was, rather, simply an attack on Tom Slockett.

Officials' Stupid Decisions. President Bill Clinton, aware that, as the saying has it, "You're not paranoid, you've got real enemies," and aware of prior charges of his womanizing, was stupid to hand his opponents the relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Similarly, Tom Slockett, aware that he has real enemies (including, apparently, some at the local paper), and aware of his prior arrest for (even if not conviction for) drunk driving -- not to mention the potential real risk to the lives and safety of others -- was stupid to risk driving with blood alcohol over the legal limit. If he knew there was a risk he might drink enough to impair his judgment regarding whether or not to drive he might even have connected a breathalyzer to the ignition of his own car. But stupidity in one's private life, even stupidity that involves violation of law, stupidity that does not affect one's performance in public office, should not be grounds for removal from office or public calls for one's resignation. If the paper's "stupidity standard" were applied throughout our economy our unemployment numbers would go through the roof.

Impaired Performance and Procedures for Removal. Clearly, if an official's performance in office is impaired -- for any reason, whether or not it involves a violation of law -- that is a matter of concern (even though it may not be a reason to call for their resignation). Iowa law provides procedures for removing officials from office. The Press-Citizen has shown willingness in the past to use the law not only in the pursuit of stories, but in the pursuit of what it believed was in the best interests of the State (such as its public records and open meetings protests regarding the Regents). For example, Chapter 262 of the Iowa Code provides for the removal of an individual Regent. Section 262.4 says that "The governor, with the approval of a majority of the senate . . . may remove any member of the board for malfeasance in office, or . . . [if] incapable or unfit to discharge the duties of office . . .." (This is true even if the senate is not in session (as it was not during some of this time). The Iowa Code expressly provides in Section 262.5 that if the senate is not in session, "the governor may suspend any member so disqualified . . . subject to the approval of the senate when next in session.") If the paper really feels Tom Slockett is unfit to serve it might wish to consider proceeding under the law, rather than merely embarrassing him publicly in an editorial. I am not in a position to know whether Tom Slockett's performance in office has been in any way impaired by alcohol -- although from my limited contact with him I have certainly not seen any such evidence, and the Press-Citizen does not even allege, let alone prove, that any exists.

Voters' Rights. Clearly there is a distinction between what is appropriate behavior for voters and what's appropriate for those with disproportionate political, economic and media power -- such as newspapers. There were undoubtedly voters who voted against Senator Jack Kennedy for president because he was Catholic -- just as there will be those who will vote against Governor Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries because he is Mormon. Others will choose their candidate on the basis of positions on "God, guns and gays" -- or some similar issues. It makes no difference that many will think them a little short sighted in doing so. It's their right as voters to select from among candidates on whatever basis they choose. Similarly, some may decide to vote against Tom Slockett next time around because of this arrest -- even if it turns out that his drinking has had no adverse impact on his performance in office. That's their right.

Bottom Line. So here are the options and comments as I see them.

1. The Press-Citizen, or indeed any local citizen, can proceed with the legal options in place for the removal of county officials, including Tom Slockett.

2. Voters are free to vote against him should he choose to run for re-election.

3. But decisions regarding "resignation" are his, alone, to make in my judgment.

4. DWI may involve a disease. The punishments for it -- both the criminal penalties, and the social opprobrium -- are significant. There is little justification, or need, for "piling on" an individual public official by the media. If that is to be done it should be done across the board for all public officials and for all illegal or anti-social behavior -- not just an individual a given media outlet may not like for one reason or another.

5. However serious DWI may be, however appropriate editorial and other campaigns to prevent it may be, I don't think it's warranted to select and publicize such an offense as a means of attacking an "enemy," and calling for his or her resignation (which the attacker would have wished for anyway, with or without the DWI) -- unless there is reason to believe the official's performance in their job has been impaired in some way.

6. I recognize that my analysis and position will be unpopular with many. It's just the way I see it.

# # #


Unknown said...

I strongly agree with your position and plan to write a brief letter to the editor expressing my opinion. The P-C wouldn't reproduce your comments on line--too long, they said--and they will go unnoticed by most. Perhaps there is a way for you to make your thoughts more publicly available -- do you think a shorter letter to the editor from you would be published? I'd hope so!

Thanks for providing the good background support for your opinions --

Polly Nichols

Anonymous said...

The Press Citizen NEVER does anything out of public interest. Every move it does is calculated on the bottom line of pleasing its masters in Virginia and its shareholders. Drop the pretense of public interest, because there hasn't been any there for a long time.

How else can you describe an organization that demands a fire station for its own purposes?

Anonymous said...

I understand that identical circumstances do not provide for a perfect comparison between public officials when a newspaper reports on this issue. I'm curious why no similar editorial appeared regarding Sen. Dvorsky.

The circumstances are awful similar. Sen. Dvorsky did register a lower BAC limit (0.09) but then he voted for the 0.08 limit. Mr. Slockett did not show immediate contrition in his first incident, but then the case against him was weak (the DWI was dropped).

Anyone who arrives at such an unfortunate position must take a full account of his/her legal situation when deciding how to best address the public and media.

Without passing judgment on either man's character, I'll note that they have the same record with respect to DWI. The P-C has only called for one resignation.

Jon Folman
Iowa City

Anonymous said...

As the Press-Citizen's Opinion editor, let me make just a few points of clarification.

First, in no way did the Press-Citizen refuse to print Nick's comments. He rightly judged that his thoughtful analysis was too long to include as part of our story chat feature. If he had chosen to post all the text as opposed to just a link, we would not have stopped him.

Second, on the Opinion page, we try to print every printable letter that we receive under 250 words -- especially those letters that take the Press-Citizen to task. We occasionally do print local guest opinions of between 400-700 words. As Nick knows, if he wanted to trim down his post to guest opinion length, we most likely would make space for him. We've already received several letters in support of Slockett (each pushing the 250 word limit) that I will be running on Saturday's page.

Third, it's true that we did not have a similar editorial for Sen. Bob Dvorsky. But the Editorial Board did discuss it at the time. In Slockett's case, the board thought the circumstances were different enough to warrant Tuesday's "Our View." We did make mention of the charge against Dvorksy, however, when giving our endorsements for the 2006 campaign. Because Dvorsky was running unopposed at the time, we wrote, "(The charge) does make us wish that this race had been contested so District 15 voters would have more of an opportunity to decide ... for themselves (whether such a charge disqualifies him for office)."

I'm not exactly sure how Tuesday's "Our View" serves to please "(our) masters in Virginia and (their) shareholders," but it does summarize the consensus opinion of the Press-Citizen's Editorial Board members (who all have made Johnson County their home for many years, if not for a lifetime).

If you have any other questions or if you want to submit a letter, please feel free to contact me at opinion@press-citizen.com.

Anonymous said...

How does it serve your corporate interests? That is simple; Controversy sells...Everything is done with the intention of selling more newspapers.

Anonymous said...

If people and editorials can call for (and get) the resignation of a U.S. president(Nixon), we can surely call for the resignation of a county official who's guilty of incompetence and breaking the law.

No one with more than superficial knowledge of the Auditor's performance at the auditor's office doesn't believe that he should step down. While Slockett only has one conviction, he was arrested for drunk driving twice. Regardless of his ability to negotiate a plea, not assuming he was driving drunk the first time is quite naive. His second arrest indicates a serious problem.

The DUI, while serious enough by itself, is a symptom of even more serious problems of character and competence. The Auditor chronically abuses his employees, especially women, and grasps only the most simplistic aspects of his office and can't retain that information for more than a hour--keeping his staff long hours because he's forgotten some routine detail that's been explained many times. He doesn't live up to progressive principles in spirit or deed, and if he didn't donate to and support progressive candidates and their druthers; they'd have taken him to task on his malpractice and incompetence long. There's a reason that after 20 years not one of his employees has ever worked on or donated to his candidacy.

Vacuite said...

In your post you talk a little bit about impaired performance and procedures for removal and you cite the procedures for removing a member of the board of reagents. Is the procedure similar for removing a county auditor? Can the board of supervisors take similar actions?

Anonymous said...

Yes, the district court can....so, a judge in the 6th judicial district can do it.

66.1 Removal by court.

Any appointive or elective officer, except such as may be removed only by impeachment, holding any public office in the state or in any division or municipality thereof, may be removed from office by the district court for any of the following reasons:

1. For willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform the duties of the office.

2. For willful misconduct or maladministration in office.

3. For corruption.

4. For extortion.

5. Upon conviction of a felony.

6. For intoxication, or upon conviction of being intoxicated.

7. Upon conviction of violating the provisions of chapter 56.

notice point #6....

Someone with standing as laid out in Chapter 66.3 can get the ball rolling.

1. By the attorney general in all cases.

2. As to state officers, by not fewer than twenty-five electors of the state.

3. As to any other officer, by five qualified electors of the district, county, or municipality where the duties of the office are to be performed.

4. As to district officers, by the county attorney of any county in the district.

5. As to all county and municipal officers, by the county attorney of the county where the duties of the office are to be performed.
So, Janet Lyness or the Supervisors could do it or Tom Miller. Don't count on the locals petitioning the court....Tom knows where a lot of skeletons are buried.

Donald Baxter said...

With all due respect to Nick Johnson (and I do respect him a great deal), I think society as a whole isn't hard enough on impaired driving. I lost three members of my immediate family to someone who was a repeat offender drunk driver. I'm not so concerned that Slockett resigns as I am that he not be allowed to drive a car again--ever. While driving a car is regarded as a privilege, too many of us think of it as a right. Why I would like to see Tom Slockett retired has more to do with the draconian way he manages the employees in his office. Ask Mona Shaw. Ask Mona how she was abandoned by Johnson County Democrats when she brought up the issue of how Slockett manages through intimidation and fear. Defending Slockett seems to me more like a party circling its wagons to protect one of its own than an ethical problem with the Press Citizen (a paper of which I have my own list problems).

Donald Baxter
University Heights