Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 28, 2013

Editorial: Don't let threatening behavior derail democracy

Traverse City Record-Eagle

— An ugly incident occurred in the Record-Eagle’s lobby last week, an intimidation effort carried out against one of the newspaper’s writers by a Leelanau County commissioner’s husband. The incident included a borderline assault and a not-so-subtle threat of violence.

That hostile behavior mirrors what we’re increasingly seeing in regional local government, a mindset fueled by tough talk, chain e-mails, hate blogs and other media, and an unquestioning embrace of bizarre conspiracy theories.

Sometimes local public officials are targeted; they find themselves confronted by citizens quick to embrace mob mentality and very willing to unleash their venom on government officials.

An example occurred last month in Benzie County, when commissioners barely dodged tar-and-feather treatment after adopting an ordinance to rid the county of blighted buildings and disintegrating properties. An angry meeting crowd accused a Benzie official of being a communist, surely a shock to commissioners, most of whom consider themselves conservative Republicans.

Benzie leaders backtracked when confronted by the froth, and agreed to gut the blight ordinance. What a victory for the “little guys.” What’s next, welcoming signs on U.S. 31 at the county’s north and south borders that read “Benzie County: Don’t tread on our blight”?

In Leelanau County, the conspiracy crowd propelled some of their ilk to elected office. But attaining public office means there’s a risk someone might pay attention to their representatives’ words and actions. No longer can they be sure their coffee shop cronies are the only ones exposed to various railings about presidential birthplaces or threats from United Nations helicopters.

The incident at the Record-Eagle’s office came after a story about the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners’ recent moves to reject a $16,500 payment to the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corp. and dismantle the county’s Economic Development Board.

The local EDC largely is comprised of moderate and conservative Republicans, but Leelanau County leaders apparently smelled a rat. Their “a-ha” moment —at least in some commissioners’ minds — came when they came across language in the proposed EDC partnership that urged the county to be, in part, a “national leader in smart, sustainable economic development;” to explore job growth in “clean applied technologies;” and find “compatibility between existing economic development drivers such as tourism and other employment sectors.”

There’s nothing wrong with an elected body reviewing and rejecting such proposals, if they believe they won’t benefit the community. That’s what representative government is all about. But some Leelanau commissioners, including Karen Zemaitis, decided to share their curious theories about the EDC’s motives, and at the same time shed light on themselves:

“The things that they have produced in their strategic plan, they are for many of the things in Agenda 21 - the same language,” Zemaitis told a Record-Eagle writer. “It is something I do not want in my area. They want to have people live in cities only, which would eliminate living in our county because we don’t have any cities here. They want us to use public transportation only, which again is unworkable in our community.”

Ah, Agenda 21. That’s the non-binding United Nations better-world philosophy that’s become the boogeyman darling for all those self-disenfranchised conspiracy advocates who claim to see a socialist behind every tree. And it’s nonsense, but anti-Agenda 21 adherents, rallied by cable television extremists, need something to reinforce their victimhood and legitimize their increasingly anti-social behavior.

Somehow we doubt local EDC members secretly bow to Mao, Lenin and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But it seems Zemaitis’ husband didn’t care to see his wife’s meanderings in print, and he came to the newspaper unannounced to take out his rage on a writer. A bit of threatening behavior and unwanted physicality later, he was told to leave the building or face arrest.

This seems to be a common tact among the anti-government types. First Amendment rights apparently aren’t adequate for them to express their anger, so they resort to threats and implied violence, if not outright assault.

Be sure of this: The Record-Eagle won’t back down when confronted by this loud, angry minority. And we urge the community at large, the vast majority of whom are good, sensible people, to stand their ground, as well.