Monday, February 4, 2019

All Politics are Local

I’ve never had an editor, a censor, oversight for my writing in any way.   Memo, letters, press releases, grant applications, stories, and poems have always been what I wanted and how I wanted them for good or ill.  I think of editors mostly in regard to newspapers.  Plenty of good writers were born from the discipline of writing the tight, to the point, factual copy for which newspapers are known.  I’ve always admired good print reporting by writers who churn out words every day for a living.  
I subscribe to two newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and my local paper The Times, which primarily covers the Ottawa and Streator communities.   They are both still delivered to my house in addition to my email inbox.  It’s a luxurious expense, most likely unnecessary, especially the print editions, but I hesitate to end them.  Newspapers are being squeezed by a business model which every day favors ink and paper less and digital distribution more.  The problem is financing both in order to pay the writers.  Ads and subscriptions create the money behind newspapers and somehow we all now expect content for free.

I am guilty as anyone else.  I have a wooden wine crate by my kitchen door in which I shuck all the inserts and ads first thing upon bringing the newspaper in the house.  Screw the commerce, give me the news.  And yet I think newspapers, especially local papers, are part of what defines the character and integrity of the places we live. I want to support their coverage of my community, because at times it is damn good.  As an example I give you the well written coverage of a colorful story that played out in Ransom Illinois in the not too distant past.   
That story chronicles a great debate over keeping chickens in town.  Many of my out of town readers would not be familiar with the Ransom chicken debate.  It didn’t break into mainstream media.   But it really captured the attention of us here in the Illinois Valley.  Tip O’Neill of Watergate fame taught me all politics is local.  I want to believe him.  If that’s true, we may be able to right the ship of state after all. 

Ransom is a village of 400 or so in LaSalle County near Streator.  It began as a planned community in 1876, and was incorporated in 1885.  I have not looked at that original plan, but I have to believe it was never fully realized.  Ransom is a small burg near a railroad, on a flat plain surrounded by corn and soybean fields.  It has a post office, a Methodist church, a grain elevator and assorted businesses.  For a long time little if any news was generated by the citizens of Ransom, until the great chicken controversy popped up amidst mundane coverage of a village government meeting.  That story was written in January of 2016 by Jerrilyn Zavada, sadly no longer employed there today, caught up in downsizing after the paper changed owners.
Jerrilyn’s lead for the story was this: “After 19 years, the village of Ransom is enforcing a 1997 ordinance prohibiting the possession of chickens.”

In Ransom at that time three people keeping chickens in the village were sent letters from the village board enforcing the ordinance.  Two of them, both named Stillwell, objected and were present at the next meeting to speak to the council.  The third chicken fancier, never named, apparently gave up his or her chickens without a fight and avoided all subsequent publicity.  But the Stillwells spoke out loudly.

Denise and Randy Stillwell divorced an unreported numbers of years before, and as part of their divorce split their chickens.  Denise, at the beginning of 2016 at the start of the controversy, had five guinea hens she described as pets that also provided her with two or three eggs a day, relieving her of the need to go to town and pay for brown eggs.  In that January story she claimed she had just baked Christmas cookies using those eggs.

“I came to town in 1986, have had chickens every since, and not once in 30 years has anyone asked me to get rid of them.”
Denise did add that she had heard people in town complaining about Randy’s rooster crowing, but if that was the case why not just ask him to get rid of the rooster?

The Mayor of Ransom, Matt Hauser, who along with Randy Stillwell shaped up to be the main characters in this saga, claimed he had received complaints.  Matt had been mayor for two years, and maintained he was simply following his policy of enforcing old ordinances rather than adopting new ones.  When he became aware of other chicken owners he sent them all a letter.  

"Once we were made aware of other citizens with other chickens, we approached them too. There are ordinances. They do need to be enforced. I've asked for them to be enforced.”
Randy Stillwell wasn’t buying it.  Complicating this story is the fact that Randy was a member of the village board taking action against him.  In fact, he was a member of the village board in 1997 and voted for the ordinance.  Like Denise he had had chickens since 1986.  Randy claimed at the time of the vote his chickens were grandfathered in, although there was no mention of it in the minutes.  At that time in Ransom no discussion was included in minutes, only motions and votes.  He was pretty sure there were no complaints, and that Mayor Hauser was retaliating against him because of votes he had taken on the village board, particularly his vote to privatize the water system.

"I do have one rooster, but there is a train that blows its whistle through town every 18 minutes," Randy Stillwell said. "The bottom line is I've lived in Ransom for 30 years and never heard a complaint. Never seen a complaint. I would like to see these complaints because no one's said anything."

Though divorced years earlier, the Stillwells seemed to stick up for both their chickens and each other.  Take this statement by Denise.
"We're a farm community," she said. "You can look outside on all four sides of us there's (sic) fields of corn and beans and hay. It's not like we're downtown Chicago."

In the first article of what would be many, Jerrilyn captured the elements of the fight to come very well I think.  The village mayor, pitted against chickens and their owners, which included a rival on the village board, was locked into a power struggle over not only hens and roosters but the character of their small town. 
Jerrilyn closed the story with a quote by Mayor Hauser on what he thought were the wishes of the citizens of Ransom.

"There's a lot of things that weren't being done for many years in the village and I don't think the people that voted for me want to go back to that."

Apparently not everyone in Ransom agreed with the mayor.

The next article to appear in The Times was written by Dave Giuliani in April 2016.  Sadly Mr. Giuliani was also not retained by the by the new owners of our local paper.  Dave took a different tack on the story by filing a Freedom of Information Act request of the city of Ransom to find out how much they had spent fighting Randy Stillwell’s and his chickens.  Denise had reportedly found a new home for her hens, so the conflict narrowed to Randy Stillwell against the village.  At a January preliminary hearing Mr. Stillwell represented himself in court, while Ransom retained the services of a law firm out of Streator.  The case was set for trial on July 25.

Dave Giuliani found out that through March Ransom had paid $1,288 to its law firm, Myers, Berry, O'Connor & Churney. That made up a fraction of the village's budget.  In the previous year, Ransom received $230,000 in revenue outside of its water utility.  Still to the average Ransom citizen that probably sounded like a pretty good chunk of change.  Randy Stillwell had spent nothing but his time.

On July 6 of that year, Dave Giuliani ventured to Ransom not to cover a village meeting, but to do a color piece on Randy Stillwell.  His trial was coming up, and interest in coverage concerning it was growing.  Used to be newspapers worked on pure faith that their material was being read, but with the advent of on line readers, they could count the clicks and thus the readers of a particular story .  The Times web page began ranking articles most read.  The battle over chickens in Ransom had caught on fairly big.  Nothing wrong with feeding the readers’ interest is there?

The reporter visited Randy at his house, viewed the chicken coop, and tried to show how the whole thing looked to Mr. Stillwell.  He did a pretty good job I think.  Imagine them standing in Randy’s yard in Ransom.   This photo may help.

 Randy says this:
"This town is four blocks wide, 10 blocks long, and they claim it’s not a farming community,"

Looking at a grain elevator on the edge of town Randy says,
 "That is not Starbucks."

It’s amazing how much punch a simple four word observation can have.  Dave Giuliani didn’t express his feelings, but I’m sure a lot of readers felt exactly the same as Randy Stillwell. 
Dave Giuliani apparently steered the conversation to village politics and Mr. Stillwell’s own political aspirations.  This quote by Randy revealed rather casually another layer of depth to the story:

"I'm on a fixed income. If I can't pay the fines for the chickens, I can't run for mayor."
Giuliani added, “And that's exactly the position he wants.”  So by attacking Randy Stillwell was the sitting mayor trying to eliminate a competitor?  The reporter left that up to the reader’s imagination.

To be thorough, the reporter set the scene.  Knowing his story in print could not squeeze out column inches for ads, he kept it brief as good journalists (and some say good writers) always do. 
 “Stillwell's home is in an old convenience store he once ran. To its side is the chicken coop. On a recent day, he threw pieces of bread on the ground for the birds. They scurried forward.”

"They are pretty calm. They don't like a lot of people," Stillwell said of his chickens. "Kids come by and feed them grass all the time."
This article revealed a swell of community support being shown for Randy Stillwell and his chickens.  A local tavern had 100 T-shirts made that read "Save Randy's Chickens 2016—Ransom Chicken Wars." On the day of his interview, Stillwell, a 63 year old Coast Guard veteran, was wearing one of them, along with a black NRA cap.  (BTW, this writer would give anything to have one of those shirts.  XXL Tall if they have it.)

Also learned from reading this article was that a few months earlier, when the court case attracted publicity, someone killed Randy’s rooster by wringing its neck.
Dave Giuliani’s visit to Ransom gave Stillwell the opportunity to express to Dave Giuliani his hunch that the village's legal action, in part, may have resulted from some residents' unhappiness with the appearance of his property at 202 E. Plumb St.  As Giuliani noted, “in the front is a pile of firewood, an old fridge, a pig roaster, milk crates and other items. He (Randy Stillwell) said he has done some cleanup, and acknowledged he had more to do.

He questioned why the village was targeting his chickens when he said plenty of others are out of compliance with various village codes. He keeps a stack of photos he has taken of houses around town. Some also contain piles of firewood on their front lawns, while many others lack address numbers. His photos, he said, also include unpermitted fences and buildings.
Good reporters ask simple questions and wait patiently for the answers.

Did Stillwell think he would prevail?
"With common sense, I will," Randy replied.  "I've had them all these years and never had a complaint."

Village President Hauser could not be reached for comment.  Rebutting nothing in that article was probably not Mr. Hauser’s best public relations decision.
Next up Part 2- CHICKENS ON TRIAL.  

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