By Norb Garrett
Tuesday was election day to fill the vacated seat following the untimely death earlier this year of City Councilmember Steve Swartz. Five candidates came forward to run for the short-term seat, and Gene James appears to have won handily by a 2-to-1 margin over his closest competitor, Jackson Hinkle. Congratulations to Gene and thanks to the other candidates for their willingness to serve our community.
The buildup to Tuesday’s election since our last printed edition Thursday has been wild to say the least. I want to take this moment to apologize to the community for any additional stress we have contributed in the lead-up to election day. It certainly wasn’t our intention, as our stated goal since I conceived and launched this paper in 2006 was to “Celebrate San Clemente” while providing “Local News You Can Use,” a mantra that influenced our pre-election coverage.
Our reporting on allegations against any of the city council candidates was intended simply to inform the community and give those candidates an opportunity to respond and set the record straight. We had no desire to influence a race and have always been neutral and unbiased, attempting to stay down the middle of any political issue.
After the paper published last week, we received a good number of complaints from supporters of Gene James about the story we wrote in which Mr. James responded to allegations that had been brought forward about him. Many of the allegations are 15 or more years old. The timing was unfortunate, but not deliberate. We felt then, as I do now, that by allowing Mr. James to respond to those allegations directly would help clear the air. Unfortunately, it appears to have done the opposite and led to increased divisiveness in our community.
Fundamentally, however, I want to underscore the importance of a free and unbiased press and the role we play in San Clemente. Without a free press, the general populace would be uninformed (or informed only through one-sided, politicized channels), which would eventually lead to chaos. At the SC Times and my other Picket Fence Media papers, we are 100% unbiased and are dedicated to sharing information with the sole goal of helping inform our readers so they can make their own decisions. During this election, after we had provided statements and comments from each and every candidate about important issues here in town, we were confronted with a handful of issues involving some of the candidates—information that was already out in the public. As is our responsibility as a free press, we looked into them and solicited responses from the candidates. We offered no opinion around those stories, and simply did our best to respond to them when we learned of them, which put us in a no-win situation in the midst of what was a very polarizing election.
We also made a few unintentional errors in the past week, such as mistakenly running a “Letter to the Editor” from one of the candidates, which is against our “equal voice” elections coverage policy but made its way into the paper. And our reporter, Shawn Raymundo, used Facebook Instant Messenger as a tool to reach another candidate in the race, Jackson Hinkle, for him to respond to allegations against him, which then looked as if he were a “friend” of Mr. Hinkle’s. He is not; he simply used a modern communication tool to reach Mr. Hinkle, which required that he “Friend” Mr. Hinkle in order to reach him. Innocent enough, yes, but when coupled with the aforementioned unfortunate timing from the story on Mr. James, that connection certainly provided more reason for James’ supporters to think there was an ulterior motive to our reporting. I can assure you, there was not.
We have no intention of trying to be an investigative newspaper like the New York Times—we simply don’t have the resources. The SC Times has one full-time reporter; we’re locally owned and locally supported. We have no political affiliation, nor will we ever. Our intention is to use the paper to bring our community together, not tear it apart. We have done that well for the past 13 years since we started the paper. Allegations by some upset James supporters in recent days that our editorial can be “bought” are flat out absurd. Whether our national political climate has contributed to these claims, as well as unfounded allegations against us of deliberately doing a “hit piece” on Mr. James and being part of a left-wing “conspiracy” to tilt the election, the fact remains that our story appears to have been divisive rather than unifying.
And for that I’m truly sorry.
I’m hopeful that the information we shared and the responses from the candidates in the weeks leading up to the election helped our readers make informed choices. No other local media provides the depth of pre-election coverage that we do, and we remain committed to that effort. Elections are increasingly a nasty business and reporting on them is increasingly tricky. But they are critically important to our democracy. We’ve learned a few lessons from this year’s city special elections and vow to get better from it.
Again, congratulations to Gene James, and we wish him terrific success as he joins the San Clemente City Council. And I promise our readers, we’ll improve and continue to provide you with fair, unbiased “Local News You Can Use” intended to make our community stronger and more unified.