Married to the mayor, cursed by the chief
By Chris Busby
I need to put the kibosh on this rumor before it gets any uglier: I am not married to City Councilor Cheryl Leeman.
Leeman married me. I mean, she officiated at my July 9 wedding to the former Meghan Conley, whose boss is City Councilor Nick Mavodones.
Another city councilor, Peter O’Donnell, thinks this fact makes it unethical for me to ever report on City Council matters again. Who knows how many people he’s told about my wedding? And you know how rumors get distorted from ear to ear.
“You’ve got a conflict of interest here, and you shouldn’t be covering anybody on the Portland City Council, because you’ve shown that you have a personal connection with one other councilor,” O’Donnell said.
He’s not talking about Mavodones, who, as my wife’s boss, has direct control over most of our household income.
No, O’Donnell thinks the fact Leeman volunteered to officiate at our five-minute wedding ceremony, four months after I stopped reporting on City Hall, constitutes “empirical proof” that I’m in bed with her, so to speak, and will intentionally tailor my reporting to make her look virtuous and good, and make him look corrupt and evil.
Politicians need a thick skin, and most develop one, like lobsters, over the years. But even after a decade-plus in public office, Peter’s skin is thinner than the toilet paper on the industrial-sized rolls in City Hall. He’s often taken personal offense to articles I’ve written, and believes I’m “out to get him.”
A low point came last year, when he suggested I was a homophobic bigot. (O’Donnell is gay.)
Reporters also need a thick skin, and I’ve tried to toughen mine through the years, but that comment – “my supporters tell me you’re anti-gay” — cut me deep, coming as it did just months after a close friend and former roommate, who happened to be gay, passed away. I spent the better part of the next City Council meeting composing an angry rebuke to O’Donnell in my reporter’s notebook, a diatribe I never did summon the guts to read to the council.
I hope they read this, because their colleague is way out of line.
O’Donnell brought out the “anti-gay” comment again earlier this week, in the same conversation in which he tried to use my wedding day to question my integrity. And again, I held my tongue. There’s no way to respond to that charge without looking like a defensive homophobe. It’s a cheap rhetorical jab, akin to the classic, “So, Governor, have you stopped beating your wife?”
Perhaps ironically, I’d called O’Donnell to get information about the send-off party for another childish public servant: former police chief Mike Chitwood.
You’d think a tough-talking cop from the mean streets of Philly could handle bad press and the occasional editorial needling. But Chitwood liked to play petty little games with reporters, too. Write a story he didn’t like, and rather than respond with a rebuttal, he’d just stop answering or returning phone calls, hiding behind his secretary’s skirt.
While I was a reporter for The Portland Forecaster (I resigned last February), Chitwood took this game to new levels of juvenility.
Though it’s impossible to prove, as O’Donnell would say, empirically – fax numbers can be misplaced, secretaries can make mistakes – after I wrote a few stories that didn’t make the police department look like the virtuous Knights of the Roundtable, The Forecaster stopped getting notices of police press conferences.
This happened a couple times, and each time I had to write a letter to Chitwood’s boss, City Manager Joe Gray, to get the problem resolved. I felt like a cranky neighbor warning an unruly kid to “knock it off, or I’ll call your parents and then you’ll really be in trouble!”
Newsgathering is a tough, competitive business everywhere, and in this town, Chitwood’s press conferences were like free candy at a parade to media outlets hungry for quotes and video of the telegenic chief expounding on the latest heinous crime. If Chitwood decided, for example, to stop sending notices of press conferences to one of the three TV news operations in Portland, they’d be screwed in short order as viewers (and the advertisers who need them) switched to a competing channel.
This is how Media Mike manipulated the press. There’s no telling how many stories that cast the department in a negative light have been either axed or watered down to appease the touchy top cop or merely avoid his petulant wrath.
Toward the end of my time at The Forecaster, word came down to me through the paper’s owner and editors that neither Chitwood nor anyone else in the department would be returning my calls. Again, it was hard to pin down exactly who’d issued this edict, or how strict it really was, but as my editor told me, “they’re just not going to talk to you.”
Why? Had I gotten an important fact wrong? Had I misquoted someone? Did we need to run a correction?
My editors, who examined and either approved or removed every word I wrote before it went into print, couldn’t point to a single gaffe. All the same, they decided another reporter should call the police every time I needed a quote or information from the department for a story I was reporting.
The decision to change, and considerably complicate, our newsroom practices in response to the vague whims of a public official was unfortunate, and ultimately unnecessary.
The chief had stopped sending superior officers to meetings of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, because he claimed a couple committee members had been rude, or failed to show proper respect, to the officers present (sounds like a pattern, eh?). In keeping with my editors’ edict, I didn’t call Chitwood while researching the story, but someone I interviewed must have, because the chief called me to give his version of the story. We had a very polite, professional conversation. I appreciated his time.
Chitwood was wily that way. He’d poke you in the backseat until you cried out for mom, then pretend he didn’t do anything, or claim you started poking first.
“I think you should be staying away from all these stories,” O’Donnell told me when I called about Chitwood’s $12,000 bash, a party O’Donnell helped organize. As the Portland Press Herald noted in its Aug. 18 article about how wonderful and heartwarming the party was, the paper itself spent a sum (it didn’t disclose how much) to give the chief a big, posh send-off.
I tried to give Cheryl a check for $50 in exchange for her notary services, but she wouldn’t take it. I guess some politicians just can’t be bought.
— Chris Busby
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.