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Our role: A watchdog, not a lap dog

Richard Somerville, Editor
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

The Union did something special last week. It felt pretty good to me, and it shocked some public officials in Nevada County, yet readers may not have been aware that it happened: An exclusive news story, or what in old-time newspaper lingo is called a “scoop.”

It was the story about the Chapa-De Indian Health Program saying it had decided to pull out of the long and arduous process of trying to build a medical clinic in Grass Valley. We stumbled into the story, but we’ll take it. And I thought it would be informative to readers to explain what was special about it.

The Chapa-De story has been going on for a year. Chapa-De, which has clinics in Auburn and Woodland, as well as a small office in Grass Valley, wants to build a larger clinic at the corner of East Main Street and Sierra College Drive here with physicians on call, which would allow it to have privileges at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.



The Union has been covering the issue through the context of public meetings, in this case the Grass Valley Planning Commission. The first week I arrived at The Union, in September, I attended a commission meeting. The audience was packed with supporters and opponents of the clinic.

The clinic appeared to have met the requirements of city planners to move forward, and a representative had come to do a slide show of the project. But before the presentation could begin, someone in the audience asked to comment and was told that the period for public comment was closed. However, a motion was made to stop the process and reopen it for more public comment. Seconded, approved, and the audience filed out.




I remember asking myself, “What’s going on here? There is more than meets the eye.”

Weeks later, after more comment, the commission approved the clinic in October and sent the project to the City Council for approval.

Then a councilman appealed the decision and a whole new study was ordered.

Here’s where it starts to get interesting.

We have recognized at The Union that it is not enough to cover the news through meeting processes, press releases, or pronouncements of public officials. There is a cynical but true saying in our business: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

We believe we need to do a better job of covering public-policy stories through the eyes of ordinary people – how actions by politicians and bureaucrats impact real people in our community.

On the surface, and for public consumption, the discussion about Chapa-De’s clinic has been about traffic congestion at the intersection where they plan to build. (I’m not arguing that issue, although I came from Chicago and I know about congestion. I also go through that intersection almost daily. There is a college up the hill and a hospital down the hill, and I have never seen congestion there, except maybe during Grass Valley’s five-minute “rush hour,” and a clinic is not likely to change that.)

But there was a lot going on under the surface. One is an apparent suspicion, despite denials and evidence to the contrary, that Indians are going to build a casino there. The other is more sensitive, and to even allude to it brings angry reaction. But it1s the perception by some – true or not – that the whitest county in California wants to keep it that way.

We decided to do some good journalism and “check it out”: visit the clinic in Auburn and the smaller office in Grass Valley, talk to the care-givers and the patients they serve, see what they offer the community, and hear their perspective on their interaction with the city bureaucracy.

At the time, we had an opening for a news reporter on our Wellness beat, so we asked an applicant – an experienced journalist who has done freelance work for The Union – to tackle the assignment last week as a tryout. Problem is, she had trouble obtaining permission to get in the door. We were mystified as to why, but now know that clinic officials at the time were deciding to send a letter to Grass Valley, backing out of an agreement for the new study. When our reporter finally reached Chapa-De’s attorney Tuesday night, while he was on the way to the airport, he gave her the “scoop”: The letter was in the mail. We added reaction from the mayor and a councilwoman, and ran the story at the top of Page One on Wednesday.

The reaction from city officials was immediate: “We haven’t received any letter – how do you know the story is true?” “The clinic is using the media for its own ends.” “You didn’t talk to the ‘right’ people in government – they would give you the real story.” “Don’t listen to what the clinic says – this is just about traffic, that’s all.”

Local news radio, which on Wednesday repeated our exclusive story without crediting The Union, apparently felt some pressure, too, because on Thursday they quoted city officials as questioning the veracity of the story in “the media.”

The letter arrived, of course, but the message from the bureaucrats seemed to be, “The Union is supposed to be a lap dog, not a watchdog. You should be listening to us, not some troublemakers who have their own agenda to push. Pay attention to our agenda, because we’re the officials and experts, not ordinary people who want accessible, affordable health care. We have major traffic problems, for gosh sakes!”

So, that’s why it felt pretty good. A good newspaper should occasionally know things before “officials” do. Ordinary people who are impacted by public policy should have a chance to tell their story.

We’ll try to give them a lot more chances to do so.

___

Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.


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