December 2010

On memories and motives

By Gail Binkly

I know I’m getting older, but I didn’t think I might be going senile until I read a letter from Don Etnier in the Nov. 27 Cortez Journal.

Mr. Etnier, who is a developer and a supporter of the ongoing recall effort against five members of the Cortez City Council (although he doesn’t actually live in the city, he would like to see the councilpersons out of office), wrote about some events that took place in 2001 involving the Cortez Sanitation District and the Cortez Journal.

He claimed that the newspaper “ignored” a recall effort that was launched against three members of that board until the paper’s owners became upset at the requirements the san district was trying to impose on the Journal’s new building.

“When the recall of the sanitation district board was started we sat down with the editor of the Cortez Journal to explain what was happening and why,” Etnier wrote. “Unfortunately we were ignored until the Journal started their new building. Halfway through the building, the sanitation district decided to change their minds and required additional design standards, which cost the Journal’s owners a lot of money. Needless to say, the Journal then took us seriously and started reporting on the recall.”

Oh, really.

I was the managing editor of the Journal at the time, and I remember things a little differently. On April 17, 2001, I decided to attend a regular meeting of the sanitationdistrict board because I thought it was not being covered adequately. During the meeting, the board heard a plea from a woman who advocated for the disabled. She asked the board to consider rescinding the $500 fee it had charged a local homeowner to reconnect her sewer line after it had been severed and plugged with concrete for nonpayment of an overdue bill. The homeowner’s husband had suffered a disabling stroke and she had been forced to sell her wedding ring to pay the reconnection fee, the advocate told the board.

The board said no.

This was interesting stuff, and I wrote an article about it for the April 21 Journal, which caused a lot of discussion. One reader sent the story to the Denver Post’s Diane Carmen, who wrote a column in which she described Cortez as “the town without pity.”

During the ensuing flap, some people, including Mr. Etnier, decided to capitalize on the negative publicity in order to mount a recall effort against three members of the sanitation board. The recall, which involved some issues besides the $500 fee for reconnecting a sewer, eventually succeeded.

But was there a time when the Journal declined to report on the recall while awaiting approval for its new building’s sanitation hookup? If so, it’s news to me. I was the person covering the sanitation district, and no one among the Journal’s higher-ups ever told me not to report on the district or the recall effort.

Mr. Etnier’s conspiracy theory about the Journal’s motives doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons.

First, anyone who knows journalists will realize it isn’t likely we would ignore a story like that one. Believe me, most newspapers will leap on the chance to write about something as juicy as people trying to throw elected officials out of office.

Second, the time line doesn’t make sense. Mr. Etnier wrote that the recall was “ignored until the Journal started their new building” and then “halfway through the building,” the Journal started reporting on the issue because it was mad at the sanitation district. There would have been a period of months between the start of planning for the new building and the halfway point of construction. But there was no such gap in coverage.

The Journal has expunged its old on-line archives, so it’s difficult to look up what was written during that period without going to the library, but I know we printed volumes of material about the recall.

For instance, on May 31, 2001, the Journal’s lead story, written by me, was headlined, “Sanitation district may face recall.”

The article explained that Mr. Etnier and another developer, Jim Kreutzer, had gone to a sanitation-district special meeting threatening to initiate a recall.

The story was published in the very next issue following the meeting. So where was the cover-up, the delay?

I bring up all this ancient history because it makes me wonder about the reliability of other information that may come from Mr. Etnier. His version of reality concerning the 2001 issue ignored the facts that (a) the recall was partially prompted by a story in the newspaper; and (b) barrels of ink were emptied while the paper reported about the effort from the time it first got off the ground until the date that it succeeded.

Initially I keep an open mind about recall efforts because I assume people motivated enough to launch such an undertaking must have at least a few substantive concerns. Now, however, I’m starting to wonder.

Mr. Etnier isn’t one of the people officially behind the effort to recall the city-council members. But he remains a prime mover in the campaign, and is one of the developers who filed a lawsuit against the city in April 2009 over alleged inequities in the requirements imposed on different developers by the city.

I’ve always respected Mr. Etnier’s abilities as a developer; his subdivisions have filled a need in the area, in my opinion. But I’m disappointed he would distort history and allege dark motives on the part of the Journal’s old staff just because he didn’t like that paper’s recent editorial saying that the recalll wasn’t warranted. Sometimes you have to accept that people disagree with you just because they think differently, not because they’re evil.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.