The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.
—Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee Position Paper
Today, local newspaper publisher Frances Luna will attend her second city commission meeting since that body appointed her on Sept. 23 to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Brendan Tolley.
Luna’s appointment was widely heralded, according to the Sierra County Sentinel, which Luna owns, along with KHCS radio and The Cobblestone, a recent media acquisition. “I received an overwhelming number of calls of congratulations, some complaints, and cheers. . . .” Luna wrote in her Oct. 2 “Dear Boss” column in the Sentinel.
Luna admitted to being frustrated by the naysaying. After all, she had sought this influential government position, as she explained in her Dear Boss column, because she has a “servant’s heart.”
So why would anyone complain about her appointment?
A few local residents had posted questions on social media about whether Luna actually lived in Truth or Consequences. She does. But, even if she lived outside the city, state law 3-14-9 governing vacancies on city commissions requires only that appointees be a “qualified elector,” defined in 1-1-4 as any resident of New Mexico who is qualified and registered to vote.
Luna herself had taken steps to head off questions about whether it posed a conflict of interest for her to sit on both the city commission and the Sierra County Commission, where she has served since March 2010.
Along with her letter of application, Luna provided the commissioners with copies of two pertinent rulings by the New Mexico Attorney General. While neither addressed her particular case, one stated there is no conflict as long as neither elected office is superior to the other, and the other stated two elected offices could be held simultaneously as long as neither “physically or functionally” interfered with the other.
The position of county commissioner is superior, at least in regard to the power to authorize the disbursement of state and federal funds to the city. This potential conflict of interest will soon be moot. Luna will step down from the county commission on Dec. 31 due to term limits.
In the meantime, it’s not clear how Luna can forcefully represent the interests of Truth or Consequences in the ongoing debate initiated by City Manager Morris Madrid about whether the city should receive more flood control money from the county, whose present allocation of those resources she has approved as a county commissioner. This is just one example of the conflicts of interest attendant to her holding two government positions simultaneously.
The situation is rendered even more untenable by the fact that Luna wears yet another hat: that of a member of the press. As publisher of the Sentinel, she has a duty to her readers and the public to ensure that the paper monitors, questions and investigates local government. The media’s indispensable role of government watchdog is impossible to fulfill when the watchdog is also a prominent member of local government.
Luna brushes off the inherent conflict of interest in the Sentinel’s reporting on her public actions and those of her commission colleagues, explaining in her column: “I don’t even edit the stories written about the meetings I’m in attendance at. Someone else does that.” This statement is ingenuous. As owner of the paper, Luna has final say over its contents.
Luna’s family has long enjoyed exclusive control of the biggest megaphone in Sierra County, which Luna regularly employs to amplify her sociopolitical views. This is a publisher’s prerogative. But holding the megaphone AND elected office is at odds with the practice of both good government and good journalism.
Regarding this monopoly on power as praiseworthy, Luna noted in her column that the owners of the Herald were also longtime school board members and that her “late father Neil Baird served nearly 15 years as a city commissioner and owned the newspaper.” For good measure, she threw in the example of a founding father who was a newspaper editor and printer.
“Does anyone remember Ben Franklin?” she asked.
The stubborn fact remains: Since the rise of modern journalism, it has been considered unethical journalistic practice for a person to own, edit and write for the media in a jurisdiction in which the person serves as an elected or appointed official.
The Sun emailed T or C’s city commissioners, asking for their comments on this issue, shortly before their Sept. 23 meeting, at which candidates for Tolley’s vacated seat were to be interviewed. No commissioner responded.
Frances Luna should not have been aware of these emails, because they were never acknowledged or discussed at the meeting or afterward in any other public arena.
Yet, in her Oct. 2 column, Luna divulged insider information that “someone was complaining that I shouldn’t hold an elected (or appointed) position because I own the newspaper/radio station.”
“I am not sure,” she continued, “why people want to restrict who can serve in any given office. They say they don’t believe that someone in office will allow stories that show problems within the governmental entity.”
We grant that Luna believes she has the best of intentions. “I’m a professional,” she declared in her column, using her media platform to defend herself against legitimate concerns about how her public servant roles might influence her paper’s coverage, and vice versa.
Luna went on to describe the tangle of loyalties that, Houdini-like, she claims to keep separate as she attempts to represent the often-conflicting interests of journalism, public office and her community service on such boards as the Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission and the county fair.
My commission information stays with me. I’ve never divulged the executive session stipulations or used them for personal gain. I’ve never used my position as a commissioner to benefit my businesses. . . . It’s really easy when you have nothing to hide and live aboveboard to not be dragged down by the accusations and conspiracy theories, but it doesn’t mean people are not trying to stir the pot.
Luna concluded by asking the community, once again, to trust her good intentions. “The nonsense talk won’t stop me from being the best commissioner possible and giving both of my seats and constituents every ounce of effort possible.”
She did not speak, however, to how she will comply with the following principles of journalism ethics espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists:
- Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility
- Shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity
- Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
Luna must choose whether she wants to serve this community as a member of the press or as a public official. She can’t ethically wear both hats at once.
Full disclosure: For the past four years, I have held leadership roles in the Sierra County Democratic Party and Sierra County Indivisible. To avoid real or potential conflicts of interest and charges of political bias that would undermine confidence in the Sun’s independence and neutrality, I have submitted my resignations from these positions, effective Nov. 4.