The Forecaster has what I believe is one of the most readable, enlightening and thought-provoking rosters of local columnists writing for any weekly newspaper in Maine.
We have Halsey Frank, who sits on the right side of the aisle and pays particular attention to issues in Portland; Perry B. Newman, an expert on the global economy who views things from a seat to the left of center, and Edgar Allen Beem, a self-described “cranky old liberal.”
What we’ve long sought is another articulate, opinionated local voice on the right. We’ve found one in Tony Payne. I’m confident his biweekly “Probing Politics” columns will prove engaging and stimulating.
Tony is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a non-partisan statewide advocacy group, and one of Maine’s most astute political analysts. He has served on the boards of many public and nonprofit organizations, and owned his own advertising, marketing and public relations firm. He was born in Portland, attended Cheverus High School and earned a degree in political science at Hobart College in central New York.
He also happens to be vice chairman of the Falmouth Town Council. And before I even saw his first column, I received phone calls from two other Falmouth councilors objecting to his employment.
One wanted to know if I was aware Tony “is a candidate for re-election.” The other said the column would give Tony “a leg up … to frame the issues,” would be “unfair” to other councilors and, in general, “the public good will not be served” if we publish his column.
I strongly disagree with those reactions, and with the traditional view that there’s no place on a newspaper opinion page for an elected public official. Our readers increasingly expect – and our ability to succeed demands – a 360-degree approach to information and opinion, with contributions from a variety of sources. In Tony’s case, his elected office isn’t the reason we’re running his work; it doesn’t disqualify him, either.
One of the councilors who called me suggested Tony’s column wouldn’t be a problem if it appeared exclusively on our Web site. That’s either a calculated political assessment of the councilor’s constituency, or a naive judgment that ignores the way a growing number of people get their news-and-opinion fix. One only has to browse the Web comments and discussions attached to Edgar Allen Beem’s columns to see how much the Web matters.
Anyone concerned about Tony getting “a leg up” – and that includes any other Falmouth town councilor – is always welcome to join the conversation on our Opinion pages via letters, op-ed columns and comments posted on our Web site, theforecaster.net.
Every sitting elected official is not “automatically” a candidate for re-election. There are laws and regulations that govern candidacy; one is not a candidate until one files nomination papers, and that deadline is months away. If Tony becomes a candidate for re-election, and his candidacy is contested, his column will go on hiatus until after the election.
As for “framing” issues and generating a groundswell of support, it should be apparent to anyone who reads the newspaper – and town councilors should know this better than most others – that readers with opposing viewpoints are often the ones most motivated by published opinions. My sense, too, is that Tony’s opinions are unlikely to surprise anyone, given his background, day job and council record – not to mention that he already writes a widely read blog and distributes a weekly e-mail newsletter.
If simply publishing Tony’s opinion is an act of unfairness to other councilors, one could argue that any column is inherently unfair to anyone who doesn’t have a column. And frankly, fairness to Falmouth’s other councilors – who already enjoy the benefit of the bully pulpit afforded by twice-monthly council meetings – concerns me less than providing a spirited, thought-provoking debate between as many voices as possible on our Opinion pages.
But just in case, Tony will not discuss business facing the Falmouth Town Council. What he will do is dissect issues that hit close to home for all our readers, from Scarborough to Portland, Falmouth to Bath, and across the state.
How can anyone say that doesn’t serve the public good?