Eclectic commentary from a progressive voice in the red state

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Amarillo's cancer: What's the cure?

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time. And, I believe I am putting myself at personal risk, as much or more risk than since The Amarillo Independent did a story with KVII in 2008 on a molestation accusation involving former Potter County Commissioner Joe Kirkwood. At the time, several people warned me that the Potter County sheriff’s office and possibly the Amarillo Police Department could be used against me. Given the recent events involving law enforcement in Amarillo and elsewhere in the United States, it’s clear that anyone, but especially a person of color, can be one punch, fist strike, baton blow or one Taser jolt away from death. And for no legitimate reason. That said, this isn’t a condemnation of the good and honest law enforcement personnel, although the blue wall of silence puts the good ones at risk for speaking out.

But the recent events in Amarillo are indicative of a more metastasized cancer in our community than some bad cops. So, bear with me as I connect the dots.

To understand the sources of this cancer, it’s necessary to understand Amarillo’s media landscape.

It’s no secret that I’ve viewed most of the Amarillo media as lapdogs rather than watchdogs, at least until The Amarillo Independent came along and then Sinclair took over KVII and brought Ryan Hazelwood in as news director a little more than two years ago. The cancer infecting the local governments and institutions could have been prevented or treated early had the media — and especially the Amarillo Globe-News — lived up to their journalistic responsibilities. The Globe-News, as the oldest and largest outlet in town, betrayed its community and its legacy for many years. Do you know what the paper’s motto is and what is carved over the door of the Globe-News building? It’s a quote from Gene Howe, “A newspaper may be forgiven for lack of wisdom but never for a lack of courage.” The paper is no longer a newspaper and has abandoned wisdom and courage.

The implications of the news media culture in Amarillo meant the governments and institutions that should be accountable to the public saw themselves entitled to use the local media as PR mouthpieces and any coverage that wasn’t glowing, “positive,” and a reflection of that they wanted public was called out as “negative,” inaccurate and divisive. Those same words are being used now by those fighting to retain the power to shove the Wallace Bajjali-Downtown Amarillo Inc. fraud-infested plan for downtown development down the city’s throat.

And so, all of the problem that have festered over the years got a pass, with the various City Commissions either kept out of the loop by city employees or by willful ignorance — matters the commissioners couldn’t have ducked had problems been made public. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that institutions of all stripes strive to create positive images and defend themselves against attempts to reveal their flaws. But with accountability, those revelations would be fewer a more superficial than we are finding now. Which brings us back to the story that triggered this essay.

The recent accusations against the Amarillo Police Department for brutalizing Robert Johnson and planting marijuana on him aren’t the first of similar allegations against local law enforcement. Ask any reporter and he’ll tell you that those stories come up often but “off the record” because of fear of retribution from not only the police but also the other powers of city government. How telling is that?

This time, however, the advocates for Robert Johnson are Jeff Blackburn and his associate Ryan Brown, passionate advocates for justice and fair treatment. And formidable adversaries for those who would trample the rights of the less powerful.

Blackburn points out in several posts for his Amarillo Citizens for Open Government that the validity of the Amarillo Police Department investigating itself is ludicrous, a position echoed by others in the community, including yours truly. That the APD would have the hubris to pull this kind of stunt reflects the legacy of the lapdog media landscape, with the almost paranoid reaction engendered by that sense of entitlement. And the fact that City Manager Jarrett Atkinson would let the APD handle the entire matter internally and not scotch the public relations push the APD used is telling of his poor judgment. Was Atkinson or anyone else so asleep at the switch that they didn’t think to ask the Texas Rangers to investigate? Or, did they think of the Rangers and then decide an internal investigation would permit a cover-up?

I saw a similar reaction from APD Chief Robert Taylor several years ago when the Indy did a story on city salaries, but it was decidedly lower-key.

In fact, in this context, I can share other instances leading me to question why Taylor is qualified to continue in his job. During the 2008 presidential election, after the Indy endorsed Barack Obama, I received a written death threat. To say the APD response was lukewarm is an understatement. It took four hours for anyone to show up and the department did nothing to follow up. Then, when I spoke to Taylor and Atkinson about the danger of traffic barreling off the westbound Interstate 40 exit to Crockett Street, I was promptly “blown off” but both public servants. In fact, at the time, Atkinson said he had full confidence in Taylor.

And that brings us back to the current City Council that now sits at a crossroad, faced with treating such a devastating cancer.

I believe the three new councilors were elected to make significant changes in both the operational leadership at the city and in the direction of downtown development. Randy Burkett’s and Elisha Demerson’s victories over incumbents were clearly a message that citizens wanted more transparency, more competence and less tone-deafness from the City Council, especially a mayor who bullies anyone who disagrees with him. Burkett and Demerson rode in on a wave of events that included bad hires at the airport and traffic engineering, Wallace Bajjali cratering, scandals with the new city logo and at animal control. By the time Mark Nair’s runoff election against establishment toady Steve Rogers, the electorate had also suffered the mismanagement of the water billing system, including a draconian firing of meter readers.

When Nair took office in June, we had another media explosion — this one confusing. Did Nair and the other new councilors call for Atkinson’s resignation in a public meeting? Or, did they think they were still in executive session? And, did they call for his resignation or did they ask for his evaluation ahead of the scheduled review in January? Reports from all the media were confusing, as I noted. But the optics of the move as portrayed, especially by the schizophrenic Globe-News, led the three to back off. Why do I call the Globe-News schizophrenic? Because it endorsed these three as candidates. I don’t know what Simpson and the Globe-News expected. But in typical Globe-News fashion, it turned on the three and made them look as bad as it could. The Globe-News did something else equally stupid in a recent editorial. It tried to separate the operation incompetence from downtown development, calling them different issues. As usual, the Globe-News is wrong. Don’t forget, it was the city and the paper that collaborated on hiring Wallace Bajjali, establishing all the alphabet soups of DAI, Local Government Corp. and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone.

After this latest episode with the APD and the way the city handled the matter, I am have doubts the three new councilors should have backed off. In other venues, I’ve called for a full-blown investigation of some of the city matters. I believe that is the right way to go; but I am not sure the City Council needs to wait until January to take action on the city leadership.

It’s time for the behaviors in Amarillo to reflect the values we saw characterized the Panhandle.