Monday, May 14, 2007

In The Bag For [Former] Chairman Sean?

I detail in the immediately-preceding post why I believe that public buildings and places --- with vanishingly rare exceptions --- should not be named for living public officeholders.

Today's Potomac News, however, offers as fine an example of "advocacy journalism" as I've ever seen. It is Kipp Hanley's article covering the dedication of the new community plaza at the County Complex, named after former Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean Connaughton.

Since I used to get paid to do it, I don't often offer my services to the Pot. News for free by writing a letter to the editor. So here are a few errant comments on Hanley's hagiography, a suggestion as to how it might have been edited by a journalist, or at least a journalist not completely in the bag for [former] Chairman Sean:

If the dedication of the Sean T. Connaughton Community Plaza and the Development Services Building on Saturday was a movie, they would have titled it "Back to the Future." [After all, it was during Connaughton's tenure --- elected as a Republican --- that County taxpayers suffered perhaps the biggest run-up in County taxes in history, giving evidence of his reactionary Liberalism.]

On a day when the former Chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors was honored for his past achievements, the current supervisors buried their present in a time capsule to be opened in 2031, the 300th anniversary of the county.

On that date, they can gaze back to Connaughton's terms in office to see what he and his fellow supervisors were able to accomplish. And they will be doing it on the grounds that Connaughton helped visualize - a gorgeous, landscaped tract of land ideally suited for public use. [By then, perhaps the County will be able to make a more objective assessment of Connaughton's tenure, rather than yielding to the passions of today.]

Connaughton said the goal of building the plaza was to create a facility for recreational purposes, a gathering place of sorts. At the far end of the plaza - which can hold 2,000 seated or 4,000 standing - is a stage that can be used for future theatrical or musical performances.

"We had virtually no public space like this in the county," Connaughton said. "If people wanted to have community events, if people wanted to have public concerts, they had to go other types of facilities to do it. So when we were looking at putting this [development services] building here, it made perfect sense to put [the plaza] between the two [government] buildings."

[Connaughton apparently forgot about the public high schools, and the many public parks scattered throughout the County.]

Connaughton's idea for a plaza came from a 2002 trip to Italy, where he was able to enjoy the great public "piazzas" that the country is famous for. [He didn't mention whether the trip was made at public expense.]

"A plaza is something all great cities and all great communities have," supervisor Martin Nohe, R-Coles, told the crowd. "We need to look and act like a world leader." [Subtext: "We're indulging our delusions of grandeur here."]

Not to be outdone by the plaza is the adjacent Development Services Building, a beautiful glass structure across from the old James J. McCoart Administration Building that houses, among others, the transportation, public works and planning and zoning departments. In the past, those offices were spread around the county, said current chairman Corey Stewart, R-at large.

The new building also has a cafeteria, a little thing to most people but not to Connaughton, said Nohe.

"It's the little things that turn a good community into a great community," Nohe said.

While addressing a crowd of distinguished guests that included several area politicians, Nohe raved about Connaughton's forward thinking while serving as chairman from 2000-2006. The economic development of the county was a focus of Connaughton's, said Nohe.

Nohe spoke about the Triple A bond rating the county was able to obtain under Connaughton. He also bragged about Prince William County's real estate tax rate, now the lowest of any Northern Virginia community.

It was clear from all those that spoke on Saturday that Connaughton left a positive legacy. Stewart admitted that while he didn't always agree with Connaughton on some issues, he knew he had some big shoes to fill when the Merchant Marine graduate vacated the chairman seat to head up the U.S. Maritime Administration last fall.

Stewart's description of Connaughton may have been the most fitting of the day when he joked that the former chairman must have been a Boy Scout because a Boy Scout "always leaves a camp site better than he found it."

That is certainly true when it comes to the plaza named after him.

If that last line isn't "advocacy journalism," I don't know what is. Certainly, the Potomac News was entitled to make such an assessment on its editorial page. It might even be a correct assessment, and it certainly isn't one which --- with regard to the plaza --- I'm prepared to dispute here.

But this is certainly opinion creeping into a news story. And while I never made pretensions to being a "journalist" while writing an opinion column for the paper --- though not a few ignoramuses who don't know the difference tried to beat me over the head with it --- I certainly know enough about "journalism" to know that an opinion like that has no place in a "news" story.


too conservative said...

God Bless Sean

James Young said...

Did he sneeze?