Sunday, December 9, 2007

"Clean Water" story is as murky as the issue

The Sunday Kenosha News reports on Pleasant Prairie's controversial clean water fee, suggesting that the village's interpretation of state laws and rules may be wrong by exempting agricultural land, a move that ostensibly benefits village president John P. Steinbrink, sr.

The article concedes that the matter is "subject to interpretation" and the underlying regulations deeply complicated. (Having heard explanations of the fee structure several months ago I will also concede that it is very complex.)

But here's the real problem.

If Steinbrink is unlawfully getting a sweetheart deal, that's news. But there's a world of difference between "may be" and "is" and the article does little to actually resolve the issue.

For example, the online story doesn't say what similar communities around the state have done with respect to agricultural land. It would certainly have bolstered the online story's credibility had this information been included. There was a story in the print version and, upon reading it, it says that the approach to agricultural land varies widely among the mentioned communities. (In Mount Pleasant, for example, agricultural land pays a flat annual $19 fee per parcel which, when you take into account the cost of collection, probably amounts to a wash.)

The print story doesn't mention any other Pleasant Prairie landowners who aren't paying clean water fees on land exempt because of agricultural use. The print story would have greater credibility if it could be shown that the exemption only benefits Steinbrink and his family.

Had Steinbrink used his official position to engineer a benefit for himself, that would be news. But the newspaper, while raising that inference, never established any wrongdoing.

So the way the story reads, Steinbrink may be wrongly benefitting from the village's clean water assessment formula but the newspaper isn't sure whether he actually is and concedes that the matter is subject to interpretation.

About the only thing that's clear is shoddy journalism.

Steinbrink's friends will cry foul and say that the newspaper was simply trying to do a hatchet job. Maybe that's true -- and maybe it's something that's subject to interpretation.

UPDATE: Since the story was posted early this morning the newspaper has now added a comparison chart of other village properties, a memo concerning clean water fees and a link to how they are calculated in the village. According to the memo, the village is not prohibited from excluding agricultural land and that the factors used in the village's formula are legitimate.


Anonymous said...

Anything that smells gets attention whether it's legitimate or not. Sometimes you just have to say and do "I should do it this way", then no one will question whether you received special favors or not. Kind of like a blind trust. Why do you think developers don't turn over control of Property Owner Associatiosn until they have built out? Last thing they want is some otehr group scrutinizing everything they do (and in a lot of cases, they don't even follow their own rules).

Anonymous said...

Think about what you're suggesting here.

That Steinbrink ought to pay fees on his ag property whether he is required to or not, just because he is the Village President in order to eliminate any "appearance of impropriety".

That is blatantly unfair and sets a ridiculous standard whereby public officials would be required to essentially make a donation to the community in order to shut up political opponents and their wholly owned subsidiary; the Kenosha News.

If that were the standard I think that it would be very difficult to find decent people willing to subject themselves to what amounts to second class citizen status simply because they hold public office. Maybe he should pay his taxes twice too.

Anonymous said...

If I were Steinbrink I would be at least talking to a good libel attorney who specializes in suing newspapers.

I know that’s a tall order, but these guys are getting very close to the line.

RAG said...

I don't think the story reached the level where a libel suit would be successful but it also fits the profile of the libel litigant developed by the University of Iowa's Libel Law Research Project.

That person is usually a public official or prominent person in the community who believes they have been wronged by the media and, when the media was contacted, the aggrieved person was usually blown off.

While only a small number of libel suits actually result in a verdict against the media outlet, most litigants feel the mere filing of the suit provides a measure of vindication.

Even though the media usually wins these suits, there is an enormous cost to defend these actions, many of which could have been prevented if publishers and editors listened to the concerns of the aggrieved persons and acted in a manner other than to dig in and blow them off.

The project puts on a fascinating program and I enjoyed attending one of them.

RAG said...

There's barroom talk and there's journalism. Somehow the newspaper confused the two.

The newspaper never established that Steinbrink (who I haven't always agreed with) did anything wrong. That's important because you don't just raise the smoke and then duck to see which way it blows. Not if you're a responsible newspaper.

The legislative memo clearly identifies that there is no "one size fits all" approach for assessment and collection of the clean water fees. Some municipalities have little or no agricultural land and so it's not an issue. Some, like Pleasant Prairie, have a large chunk of tax-exempt land. Some places charge tax-exempt property, some don't.

I think the best illustration was Mount Pleasant which charges a flat $19 annual fee for each agricultural parcel on the theory that everyone should pay something.

At the end of the day, however, the cost of billing, collection and processing probably wipes out that $19. As a practical matter, I see that as being tantamount to an exemption (and could be counterproductive if the assessment and collection costs exceed $19 which could very well be the case).

Now you can certainly engage in whatever barroom talk you want to and that's fine -- in the barroom. Not in the newspaper.

Anonymous said...

I agree that singling out one person is not right. The ultimate question is, who benefits from the CWU? EVERYONE in the entire Village. So all should pay an equal share. Period.