Every Wednesday morning of late I ditched work for several hours to engage in a soothing routine that cleared my mind of all the anxieties associated with the normal workday. It wasn’t part of a meditation ritual, an exercise regimen, or therapeutic counseling (though people have dropped hints). This mind, body and soul-enriching experience involved a relaxing drive, interposed by 90 minutes sitting in the Tri-City Herald publisher’s conference room. There I joined the weekly discussion on issues that, for the most part, affect or seem of wide interest to Mid-Columbia readers.
I was your representative — the readers’ voice — to the Herald’s editorial board. My assignment: To bring a fresh perspective to our hometown newspaper’s opinion page during a six-month term.
When I first applied to the opinion tank, I expected to swim with sharks. Instead I drifted pleasantly along streams of lucid, sometimes intense, and surprisingly objective discussions on issues ranging from government encroachment on First Amendment rights (bad), to human trafficking (very bad). From state funding for Red Mountain development (good), to increased health threats from increased coal exports (there are none, at least not locally). From tougher state gun legislation (well-intended, but misguided), to the ever-present myriad issues surrounding nuclear waste cleanup at Hanford (a perpetual mess).
Some issues failed to elicit my deep interest. These included DNA tests for arrestees (no issue), Meals-On-Wheels’ decision to prohibit staff prayers (didn’t much like that call, but middle ground was found and the board backed the organization’s decision), and a call for residents to pick up trash in the community. (I contributed little to the litter discussion since I’m still getting over the trauma of being labeled the “poop guy” for a public service announcement I did to keep Kennewick parks duty-free.)
Other issues stoked my passion for Jeffersonian liberty, community stewardship, and support for our troops and veterans. I hope you recall, “Church picks up pieces, where community failed.” That’s the piece on St. Paul’s Episcopal Church embracing, and preventing the closure of the Vista Youth Center for gay, lesbian and transgendered youth. (I wish my church had thought of it first.) Or, “My Friends Place teen homeless shelter needs help to fulfill vital mission.” I was especially pleased to lend thoughts and passion to the discussions preceding these editorials focused on providing a safety net for our youth.
We’re still reading about the gay discrimination case against Arlene's Flowers — the most pervasive opinion page topic since the Herald ran the original story in early March. Community discussion pits individual rights against the right to religious freedom. The editorial board’s discussion, however, also revealed a compassionate thread that I did not expect to find prior to my participation. That compassionate element often moderated our discussions. In this case, only good things could be said about the shop’s owner, and regret over the unfortunate incident that severed a long-standing relationship between loyal customers and a highly-reputable business. I visited Arlene’s once for a business need — and would again — during which a friendly helper came to my rescue. But, here goes ... she was wrong, and the board said as much under “Our Voice.” The result was my first piece of hate mail (actually, it was nicely worded, but clearly the author won’t be buying me flowers anytime soon). It is what it is, and a dynamic community discussion continues.
Although a minor blip on the news scene, my personal triumph of editorial influence came with the “Thumbs Down” for the Pentagon’s decision to issue qualifying “pilots” of combat drones a medal that would take precedence over traditional combat medals like the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. That was the only time I heard the word “knuckleheads” during a board meeting. I think I said it.
I tried to recluse myself on topics too close to home, certainly in the case of my employer and nuclear power (affordable and clean), but otherwise I jumped in with both feet. Not for a moment did I let depth (or lack thereof) of knowledge on an issue hinder my opinionating. Not every issue can be a case study, but I’d gather the compelling facts, form a picture, and join the discussion.
And so did you.
The letters to the editor that rolled in with supporting and counter-point comments were superb. Those letters represent our town forum — an open, free-flowing exchange of ideas and opinions that have potential to make our community a better place to live.
Thank you, Tri-City Herald. Keep your teeth in those First Amendment rights, stay as objective as possible, and, please, keep it controversial.
A graduate of Leadership Tri-Cities Class 17, Mike Paoli retired from the Air Force in 2009 and now serves as an advocate for Energy Northwest employees, public power and clean energy generation. He volunteers as a Kennewick Parks & Recreation commissioner and a communication trainer for city employees..