The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Thoughts on Local Elections

Blackstone's New Mayor/Editor In Chief

Policy Maker or Watchdog for Public Interest?

Readers of the Iconoclast are probably aware that I have perhaps a little more than passing interests in politics.

I wouldn’t say that I love politics but I do think politics at every level of government, national, state and local, are important. Politics, especially the American brand of politics guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, is what makes America work as well as it does. Not perfect, but far better than most other options we see around the world.

So, while some may not have been too fired up about yesterday’s elections, I found them interesting and comforting that American political process is still working even in years and at times when there are no big contests…no race for the Presidency, no fight for the control of Congress, no pick for Governor… just a lot of municipal elections involving some local folks who want to work on making their own communities better places to live for their neighbors. Indeed this is honorable work...hard work and usually with little reward.

In perusing the election results this morning, I noticed little earth shaking news. Yes, there will be some new faces in municipal leadership across the great Commonwealth. But, lots of incumbents were returned to office for another term of service. So, there will be a healthy blend of old experience and new energy. That is probably a good thing.

I did, however, notice with interest that the small Town of Blackstone, in Nottoway County, down in Southside Virginia, for the first time in 55 years had a contested race for the office of Mayor. In this historic contest, candidates Ortho Fraher, a former member of the Nottoway County Board of Supervisors faced off with political new-comer Billy Coleburn, who happens to also be the editor of the Blackstone Courier-Record, the local newspaper.

According to news accounts there was little to distinguish either candidate from the other on the basic issues, other than the special "conflict of interest" issue that Fraher seemed to frame around candidate Coleburn’s role as editor of the Blackstone Courier-Record. Frahar argued that Coleburn’s job as editor of the local newspaper should be reason enough to keep him out of local politics. The voters apparently did not agree, electing political new-comer Billy Coleburn as Mayor with 403 votes to Fraher’s 311 votes.

Having grown up as a kid in Nottoway County, I know how the politics in Southside Virginia can be. It is a very small world and there are lots of examples of unseemly, close relationships between local politicians and special interests. It is not unusual to see overly cozy relationships between local politicians and the local news rags. In fact in several well known instances, local elected officials in Southside Virginia who are connected to the local press, by employment or ownership relationships, seem unabashedly open and unconcerned about the potential of conflict.

Sources report that Mayor-elect Coleburn seems open and comfortable with the idea of wearing two hats in the future… one as the new Mayor of Blackstone and the other as the seasoned Editor of the Blackstone Courier-Record. In one role, Mayor Coleburn will preside over the development and administration of public policy for the Blackstone community. In the other role, Editor Coleburn will serve as the media "watch dog" evaluating with a critical eye the effectiveness and appropriateness of the same public policy.

While Mayor-elect Coleburn and the voters seem comfortable with this arrangement for now, it does seem to present some risks of compromising media objectivity and fairness on matters of local public policy.

The American form of democracy only works as well as it does because of the Bill of Rights that guarantees under Amendment I both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of press presumes also independence of press.

For these basic freedoms to really work…indeed for American democracy to work… it is best to keep government and politics well separated from those who would hold themselves out to be the protectors of truth and fairness in reporting the news and critically evaluating public policy.

For now, the voters have spoken. Only time will tell how well Mayor-elect/Editor Coleburn juggles the conflicting responsibilities of being both the source of public policy and the watch-dog for the public interest.


  • At 5/03/2006 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I know the Richmond Times Dispatch did a piece on this race as well, and in the piece they hinted at the possible conflict of interest that Mr. Coleburn will have as mayor and editor of the town's only paper.

    Since I have read the Blackstone Paper, I can tell you, Coleburn is one cuaustic right-wing hack who loves to turn even the most banal stories into battles between flag waiving conservatives versus evil hedonistic liberals. I can in particualr remember his treatment (in the paper) of Jerry Kilgore to that of Time Kaine. It was obvious from reading his paper he absolutely loved the lispy little hick Kilgore, and despised the Civil Rights attorney Kaine..

    But as you mention this type of arrangement seems to be fairly common place in Southside Virginia, it's just in Blackstone a little more obvious...

  • At 5/03/2006 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Anyone who has been involved in Southside politics knows Coleburn is an amiable enough guy but as a reporter -- MY LORD! I've never seen a reporter talk so much! He asks a candidate a question and before that person has a chance to answer, will ramble on with his own thoughts to the question!

  • At 5/03/2006 6:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is really nothing new. The former long time mayor was kin to the Coleburn clan too. Who could forget that Billy's dad, Doug, owned the paper and was also deep into the local political scene. Doug was quite entertaining with his antics sitting right on the fence ready to fall this way or that, one day the public official the next the indignant newspaper man. Where else can we have such fun?

  • At 5/08/2006 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…



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