TWISTS IN THE ROAD: No. 2
The little red light glowed on my office phone. As the newspaper’s education reporter, I punched in my voice mail password and checked my messages. I listened and heard the recording of a school board member apologizing profusely about a recent e-mail. It became clear that somehow I was the subject of the e-mail.
I logged onto my computer and read the message from the school board member, the SBM. It began, “I will reiterate my concern that Robert has an agenda that ultimately benefits his household due to his wife’s employ at a competing district… He is biased, has a conflict of interest … that benefits his household pocket book – i.e. the worse he portrays our district the more bleed off to … where his wife works. My ranting two cents worth fyi.”
The SBM was referring to my wife’s work then as a part-time librarian and classroom aide at another school district. The concern about “bleed off” referred to the possibility that bad news would send students fleeing from one school district to another, taking their state attendance revenue with them. In Santa Rosa, we not only have school choice. We also have nine separate school districts around the city. At the time, about one out of every seven students in the city had chosen to attend a campus other than his/her neighborhood school.
The SBM had hit “reply to all” and the message went out to nearly a dozen officials: school board members, administrators and attorneys. But it also went to me, because I had sent the first item on the string of messages, a request for public records.
The day started off strange and soon got stranger. A few hours later, an e-mail arrived from the school district’s attorney. It was addressed to the SBM and began, “I do not take your input as ‘ranting.’ I value your reasoned input; it ALWAYS helps to know where someone is coming from …”
Again, the attorney hit “reply to all.” Had he not seen the SBM’s second message, sent four minutes after the first? It began exactly as follows: “OOPS! I did not intende to send this robert!!”
Even now, I don’t know whether the attorney had seen the “OOPS!” message before he crafted his reply. But later that day he followed up with an e-mail that clearly was intended for me. He told me that he had learned that I had received some private communications between the school officials and himself. He demanded that I return the e-mails. They were, he said, protected communications between attorney and client. Thus, I had no right to keep them.
One of my editors laughed and laughed when shown the e-mails, especially the one demanding that the newspaper give the messages back. Let them deal with our attorneys, he said.
At the time, he could see the humor better than I could. Later that week I got angry discussing the matter with another school board member and had to apologize for my words.
In contrast, The New York Times Company attorney handled himself with adroit professionalism. He wrote to the school attorney that “The Press Democrat has decided not to return the copies, which I think you can understand given the content of the e-mails. I would hope that public school officials would be spending their time discussing how to make the schools better and their governance more transparent, not engaging in personal attacks on reporters.”
To no one’s surprise, the school attorney decided to let the matter lie. However, the newspaper’s executive editor wrote an e-mail defending me to the SBM and the other officials who had received the first message. She assured them that the newspaper’s editors were aware of my wife’s employment and that I had “a long history of recusing” myself from stories involving the district where she works. Moreover, she called it a “preposterous theory” that the particular news article I had written about one school district could have such a profound impact on another that the benefits “would filter down to Mrs. Digitale” and bring her financial gain.
The executive editor sent off that e-mail at 5:20 on a weekday evening and then left the office for a community gathering. Through a darkened patio she was led to a table and seated with none other than the SBM.
Said the SBM: “I just got your e-mail.”
Life is like that some days.