Elections can change more than who is in office

By Kevin E. Foley

In planning our forum for the Cold Spring Village mayor and trustee candidates, uppermost in our thinking was trying to present the jobs and the challenges as realistically as possible. We wanted to provide voters and readers with as clear a picture as we could of what was actually at stake in the election.

Our questions sought to identify specific issues for each candidate to address as fully as they might like. A few of these issues will need almost immediate attention when the new majority of trustees takes office in April. Suffice to say a fair amount of the rhetorical wheel spinning of the last few years needs to be replaced by some considerate collaboration among peers resulting in thoughtful, fact-based decision-making. All the candidates agreed about this, by the way.

We also wanted to have a civil civic discussion approximating many people’s notions of how local government should be conducted. So our approach sought to minimize opportunities for rancorous accusation, belittlement or the sort of speechifying that suggests an individual is auditioning for higher office or just watches too much cable television news.

One big change in our format was not leaving time for audience questions. If that upset people, there was little evidence in the aftermath. We believed journalists who have reported extensively on village matters were best situated to make inquiry of the candidates across a range of issues.

Bob Ferris, Fran Murphy and Marie Early at the Philipstown.info forum in early March (file photo)
Bob Ferris, Fran Murphy and Marie Early at the Philipstown.info forum on March 2.

We also knew from past experience that a live forum audience is populated with a healthy quotient of partisan supporters more interested in the shortcomings of opponents than dialogue over a thorny public-policy question. And there are those few for whom a chance at public performance for its own sake, no matter the disturbance to others, proves irresistible.

Judging from reactions immediately after the forum and through social media, we largely succeeded in our primary goals. People, including those who viewed the forum on our website, thought the event fair, informative and above all free of cant and vituperation.

This hardly means we are satisfied. We are already thinking about how we could make the event, the questions we ask and how we cover campaigns more helpful and informative in the future.

The real campaign for village office takes place more under porch lights, in living rooms and on bar stools than through the media. We can set the stage and air out the policy questions, but it is in intimate settings, where we are not invited, that the candidates make their appeals and perhaps whisper warnings about the consequences of their opponents taking charge.

This time around, all the candidates generally made use of most of the opportunities we presented to express views and answer questions about their backgrounds, even for some the potentially embarrassing parts. Many individuals made use of our website to expand on issues they deemed important or to respond to the provocations of others.

Mayoral candidates Molloy and Merandy.
Mayoral candidates Barney Molloy and Dave Merandy at the Philipstown.info forum on March 2.

Our perspective is that a village election calls for a bit more media restraint than some might think warranted in the heat of a race. Village officials aren’t going anywhere. Once elected they conduct business right in our midst, and despite calls for more transparency and better communication, anyone who really wants to know what’s going on has ample opportunity, including attending meetings, to do so.

From where we’re sitting, the problem is not whether we know what’s going on but whether something worth knowing is going on. This most recent race has prompted thoughts that our coverage should perhaps be less meeting-driven and more issue-oriented so readers can draw informed conclusions as to progress on vital quality-of-life matters in the community.

And yes, there are two papers and websites offering coverage. And yes, there are differences — more from our point of view in quality of journalism rather than in politics, as a few would have it. The Putnam County News and Recorder began coverage of this year’s village campaign with a picture of candidate Dave Merandy supposedly dozing off at a board meeting (we have pictures of many people doing so) and an article smarmily suggesting he might not live in the village, with references to unknown persons spying on alleged furniture moving at his new wife’s house.

Those who believe Mayor-elect Merandy (and his running mate Marie Early) should have participated in the PCNR’s debate should review these stories and look at the videos of last year’s village and town PCNR debates, wherein unfavored candidates were asked difficult, accusatory questions, while softballs were tossed to the favored.

The election results suggest implications beyond the creation of a new majority on the Cold Spring Village Board of Trustees.

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Foley is the former managing editor of The Current and a partner in foleymyers communications in Northampton, Massachusetts.

7 replies on “Reflecting on Candidate Forum and Fairness”

  1. In my opinion The Paper acts like a newspaper and the Putnam County News and Recorder acts like a political party masquerading as a newspaper. I think the Village is seeing this now and the results of the recent election bear this out.

    In the end citizens of this village seek out basic fairness and reject being told who to vote for outside the confines of an editorial page.

  2. “Fair” means that everybody plays by the same rules, or at least that is the lesson I have been trying to teach my son all of his life. The Candidate Forum presented by The Paper was in every way fair. The candidates were courteous to each other, as was the audience. The evening was a great example of how I know we can all behave in a civil manner with each other. Thank you for giving our community an opportunity to see the best in our neighbors and in ourselves.

    Also, I agree with your decision to leave out the questions from the audience, and for the reasons you stated. Your excellent questions provided the audience with lots of information upon which to base a well-informed decision in the voting booth.

    1. I agree with your point on audience questions. Everyone seems to be focusing on the last few paragraphs of Mr. Foley’s editorial, but I believe there are take-aways for all of us throughout this piece – not just the other newspaper – if we are willing to be introspective. The subdued audience behavior at this year’s forum was a far cry from the outbursts and playing to the cameras exhibited at the 2014 forum. It would be nice if this civility (just plain good manners, really) could continue at meetings and online before people start positioning for March 2016. Good manners and treating people the way you expect to be treated (either face-to-face or on social media) should really trump team/party, no matter how much people may disagree on issues.

  3. Bravo, Kevin, for your excellent look back at this critical portion of the most recent election. As for next year, might I make the humble suggestion that an audience participation aspect return to the proceedings, but in the form of pre-submitted questions that are vetted by your staff to ensure fairness and minimize partisanship.

  4. Kevin, you did right for the Village and the candidates. I attended the debate that you headed up and was impressed with your fairness and professionalism. Reflection is good for everyone, no matter what your profession, but you can rest assured that I don’t believe it could have been much better. Reflection should be a task that the PCNR should strongly consider!

  5. I applaud Philipstown.info for taking a moral stand regarding “fairness” in their forum and reporting. Now it is time to take the next step.

    I believe that it is an abrogation of democratic principles to allow the use of cyber bullying to silence opposing beliefs. Stating facts once is enough to “inform”; to allow attacks over and over again is an attempt to humiliate. I, for one, do not consider this kind of bullying a courageous act, whether it is in print in the PCNR or in online comments at .info.

    The permissive environment online is creating a “Culture of Humiliation”, as Monica Lewinsky so eloquently described in her recent TED talk “The Price of Shame.” “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop”, and it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture.

    We have lost another child to addiction. Why do they have the need to numb their senses? Ten years ago, a teenager confided to me that she was not allowed to even sit at the “Loser’s Table” in the Haldane cafeteria. Some wounds remain hidden for years; she still is unwilling to set foot on the Haldane campus. Perhaps Haldane is known as “Heroin High” because some choose to numb the pain of bullying.

    It is time for us to become the “upstanders” Monica Lewinsky calls for, by posting positive comments, expressing values of compassion and empathy to negate the negativity we read elsewhere, to serve as mentors for our children and our community.

    I must admit that I have been afraid of the backlash that will come from posting my comments, but I cried when I watched that TED talk, I cry when I think of that teen isolated from even the “losers”, when I read another obituary of a child lost to addiction. So I decided to speak up in hopes that there are others in our community who will be willing to join a dialogue of what we can do, instead of pointing fingers at others.

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