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Story's about use of taxpayer money

gender isn't the issue

December 18, 2005|By Liz Thompson

At Tuesday's Hagerstown City Council meeting, Councilwomen Penny M. Nigh and Kelly S. Cromer took exception to a story The Herald-Mail ran Friday, Dec. 9, about a weeklong conference they and Councilwoman Alesia D. Parson-McBean were attending in Charlotte, N.C.

Nigh criticized the newspaper for writing the story and said, "We are singled out. We are the women." Cromer agreed.

Let me introduce myself.

My name is Liz Thompson and I am the city editor at The Herald-Mail. Another name for city editor at some newspapers is assignment editor.

Let me be even clearer.

I am the person who heard about the trip to the National League of Cities' Congress of Cities Conference.

I am the person who assigned that story to reporter Andrew Schotz.

That's my job.

Oh, and by the way, I am a woman.

Not only that, I am a woman who joined the work force in an era when women were treated openly differently than their male counterparts. I actually had a boss tell me years ago at another newspaper that I didn't need a higher salary because I had a husband. He was saving that money for his male employees.

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Thankfully, those days are mostly in the past. I know, because I lived them.

So, Councilwoman Nigh and Councilwoman Cromer, I can tell you emphatically - that assignment had nothing to do with the fact you are women.

It had everything to do with the fact that the trip was being paid for with taxpayer money. Taxpayers have the right to know where you were and what you were doing there because their money made it possible.

When I heard about the trip and did some simple math in my head, I was surprised that the two members of the council who refused to get on a chartered bus because it cost $684 for the day would go to a conference that might cost several thousand dollars.

The bus trip was arranged by city staff to familiarize the mayor and city council - three of whom were new to public office - with major city projects.

Councilwoman Nigh and Councilwoman Cromer said one of the reasons they refused to get on the bus was the cost. The other was an illness in Councilwoman Nigh's family. The pair drove behind the bus and stayed in touch via cell phone. If the cost was not a waste initially, it certainly became one when both council members refused to step aboard so they could see and hear about the projects from the staff.

Given that reaction, both must have felt the trip to Charlotte had merit, but instead of talking about that, Councilwoman Cromer complained that we focused too much of our story on the costs of the trip.

She called Schotz the morning our story ran and blasted the newspaper for writing the story and for filing a Freedom of Information request with the city asking for information about costs associated with the trip and minutes of any public discussion about the trip.

During that conversation, Councilwoman Cromer said that we purposely mentioned the costs of the trip at the beginning and the end of the story so that only the costs would stick in readers' minds.

She also said she was going to contact the ACLU and every women's group to "come down" on the newspaper.

Public life is a choice. With that choice comes questions and scrutiny and media coverage. Councilman Lewis C. Metzner understands this. During Tuesday's council meeting, he said the council should have had more open discussion about the planned trip.

It doesn't matter to us whether you are a man or a woman. What matters is what you do and how you do it, particularly when it involves the spending of taxpayer money.

Liz Thompson is city editor of The Herald-Mail. She may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7682, or by e-mail at lizt@herald-mail.com.

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