When I heard last week that Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Mitchell had submitted a resignation letter to Mayor Pam Miller and the Glen Rose City Council, I felt a twinge of sadness. This is a woman I have known and liked before I became the Reporter's managing editor. Just this past spring she would give me a hug when she saw me and tell me I was doing a good job.
That all changed, of course, after I wrote about her son, Moose Whitfield, and his hot-check conviction that was not disclosed on his city job application despite being asked whether he had been convicted of a crime in the previous seven years. Whitfield also had been arrested in Erath County for indecent exposure. He pleaded guilty and received deferred adjudication.
After the Reporter published the story — after delaying it for a week to try to get a response from Whitfield through the city attorney — Mitchell canceled her subscription to the paper and two advertisers yanked their ads. I had expected more negative reaction than that. One advertiser said she did not like that the stories hurt Whitfield's family members, especially his children.
I don't like that, either. Unfortunately, that's one of the most difficult things about running stories like these. Someone innocent is going to get hurt. There is going to be collateral damage, a term that sounds impersonal when, in fact, it is very personal.
The questions that I, as a responsible journalist, have to weigh, though, are these:
If we don't run the story, might someone else get hurt?
Do readers have a right and a need to know about this subject?
Does the story have a good reason to be published? Does it shed light on an injustice, problem, conflict or lack of oversight?
I never reveal sources, but I can say that, as far as the first question goes, two people related to law enforcement were concerned enough about Whitfield's record, especially the indecent exposure arrest around an apartment complex swimming pool in Stephenville, that they tipped me off that I might want to check the criminal backgrounds of some city employees. My sources had no connection to the city government. Their concern was that Whitfield, a maintenance supervisor, was working at Oakdale Park and was temporarily in charge of Oakdale after its former manager left.
Nor did these sources provide me with any records or other information. I followed the records trail, visited courthouses and obtained records, filed open records requests and over the course of several weeks compiled the information on my own.
Then I gave a copy of everything I had found to City Attorney Andrew Lucas and requested a response from Whitfield. I had hoped that he would tell me he had turned around his life, he had worked on his problems and received counseling — or whatever he wanted to offer as an explanation or any remorse he wanted to express. Whatever he had to say, I wanted to include that in the story out of fairness. But no comments were forthcoming.
Barbara Mitchell wasn't serving on the council when her son was hired by the city in 2005. Her former husband, Weldon Mitchell, the former police chief, was listed on Whitfield's application as the person who referred the position to him.
Once I had all the information, I had no choice but to publish it. To be an honest broker of information means not sweeping unpleasant facts under the rug for fear that it will create too much controversy or upset someone or cause the newspaper to lose advertising.
I went through the difficult questions the story raised:
Do readers have a right to know that city policies weren't followed? Absolutely. They pay the taxes that employ the people who make the policies and are supposed to enforce them.
Do readers have a right to know that a city employee did not disclose a criminal conviction and has a record of other crimes? Especially if that person is working in public places? I think they do, especially when that person provides an incorrect answer — knowingly or unknowingly — to a significant question on a job application.
Did running the story about Whitfield's background shed light on problems within the city government? Yes. The city government has been criticized over and over again for lack of oversight and favoritism. This situation — and the fact that the council, by a vote of 3-2 (with Mitchell abstaining), did not fire, reprimand or take any disciplinary action against Whitfield when they did against others — underscored that quite dramatically.
I don't know all of the reasons for Mitchell's decision, but I know that her maternal instinct is to protect her children, including her son. I am sorry she feels that she must step down.
When people in law enforcement come to me with concerns, I am always going to take that seriously, regardless of whom I might offend. It's my job to follow the trails and, even when the information I may find along the way is unpleasant or distasteful, I have to give the readers of this community what they deserve — the facts to make their own decisions.
Readers are voting with their pocketbooks in favor of that kind of openness. The Reporter's circulation is growing. Every week people — old-timers and newcomers alike — tell me they want to know what's going on in their town. Usually it is good. Sometimes it's bad. Occasionally it's downright ugly.
But don't shoot the messenger. Aim your outrage at the people who caused the problem in the first place and hold them accountable for their actions. Not doing that causes the worst kind of collateral damage — undermining people's confidence in their elected officials and their government.