Winters Tale: The Committed Observer

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I’ve been looking forward to Saturday’s Toast of Winters gala event, not only because it’s an important night to celebrate our town’s excellence, but also because I was asked to help out in a special way. Four months ago, the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce invited me to be the night’s featured speaker, the first time they would have a guest speaker. They wanted me, as a new member of the Winters community, one privileged  to write a weekly column about his adventures here, to explain what drew me to our wonderful town.   Would I talk a bit about this year’s winners, and maybe toss in a few tales from my past life as a globetrotting journalist? Would I do it? Of course I would.  I was humbled to be included, and ever mindful that as a newcomer, I have much to learn about Winters and its ways. I wrote the speech, re-wrote it, polished it. There was nothing controversial in it, no development politics or the like. Why would there be? This was an evening of celebration.   My theme would be golden opportunities in life, one of which brought Judy and me to Winters. The Chamber was delighted.   In the course of preparing the speech, I got to thinking about how I’ve been fitting in here in Winters. When I took on the task of writing a weekly column for the Express, I wanted it to be an ongoing friendly conversation.   I long ago shed my title of reporter, but journalistic skills never fade away. I’m committed to the truth, a good story, and for added measure, I always strive to be polite and never make things personal.  But there’s something more to my work these days, and a good friend, an important businessman in Winters, noticed. He said my work reminded him of something written by Gil Thelen. Thelen is the retired publisher of the Tampa Tribune, a legendary figure in the newspaper business, known for his ability to see the big picture.   Thelen has coined a phrase, which describes exactly how I think of myself these days. He speaks of the journalist as the “committed observer.” What he means by that is that journalists are not aloof from society. They are citizens with a stake in their own community. They are patriots. Journalists, he wrote, express their commitment by providing their fellow citizens with information they need to make judgments and decisions. It’s tricky, because as members of a community, we have skin in the game. Just like everyone else, we are possessive of our town and prideful of its accomplishments. If we criticize, it should be constructive.  To my mind, this means that if I ever dare to question a decision by the city leaders of Winters, it is not simply to provoke or denounce, but to say: I live here, too.  As such, I can volunteer my skills to place the issue in perspective, not simply for the sake of journalism, but out of concern, devotion, and our shared values. To that end, I have written about our City Manager’s eagerness to develop in the north, his sway over Council members, and the need for the public to look past some of his rhetoric.    I imagine he and his allies don’t enjoy criticism. No one does. But it goes with the job of running a city.   In fact, raising controversial issues as a committed observer is often especially tricky in small towns, where change can feel threatening, long-timers are wary of newcomers, and politics can get very personal.   But I had yet to experience any of that myself. Until a few days ago.  That’s when the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce, once so enthusiastic about my speech at the event, informed me they were having second thoughts. “We’ve experienced blowback,” I was told, “because of what you’ve been writing in the paper about development.” The following day came the call to tell me the speech was canceled. The official reason given–there was no longer any time in the evening to accommodate me.  As a committed observer, I thought long and hard about how I should address this in my weekly column.   I could talk about press freedom, and that a columnist’s job is to shed light on controversy. But the speech never touched on hot topics. It was a feel good talk, a thank you to a town that has welcomed in a stranger. Instead this dis-invitation seems more like the work of a tight knit bureaucracy, trying to maintain absolute unquestioned control of its own agenda. My friends in town are appalled. They view the cancellation as a lack of professionalism, unworthy of Winters. I see their point. I see their point. Look Remember, I come from LA, the land of broken commitments.  Like me, my friends are hoping that some of our civic and business leaders might use this ungracious moment to reconsider just how tolerant they are of people who may hold opposing opinions. Blacklisting them in civic life should never be tolerated. Perhaps that goal could be added to the City Manager’s 2020 Project List. Fiscal Impact: None. And so, as a gesture to the exemplary winners this year, I’ll simply print the closing remarks of the speech they will not hear, which are as follows: “I have been lucky in life. And to be sure, one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was discovering Winters. And meeting all of you.” I still feel that way.  To that end, let me hope Saturday’s gala is a huge success. My congratulations to Barb and Terry, Nikky and Ellie, Gino, and Chris. I’ll be toasting all of you, the Toast of Winters, albeit in absentia.]]>

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