Hazard Pay

Melissa Stagnaro

I’m not the first Evening Sun reporter to ever get chased into the parking lot by a rabid school board candidate, and I probably won’t be the last. So on behalf of all those who follow in my footsteps at our little hometown daily, I am lobbying for hazard pay when such a situation arises. It’s only fair, I think, when one is operating in a war zone.

And let’s face it, that’s what some of these school board battles are these days: war zones.

My personal interest in this cause was sparked by an incident which happened a little over a week ago. It was May 11 to be exact, the night of the Norwich City School District’s annual budget information session. After the budget hearing and the brief board meeting which followed, I found myself in the hallway outside of the Norwich High School auditorium.

I was grabbing a couple of last-minute shots of two current school board members who were seeking re-election. I wasn’t sure if there would be room to run them along with the epic piece I’d already penned, featuring bios of each of the eight candidates vying for the three vacancies on the district’s governing body, but I wanted to be prepared if Jeff needed them.

Our little photo shoot was going as well as could be expected (given my admittedly abysmal photography skills), when we were interrupted by another candidate who also wanted his picture taken.

This might seem like a fairly routine request, but in this case I was forced to decline because of the rather extenuating circumstances. You see, this candidate – who I will only refer to as the perennial school board candidate, or PSBC, in reference to his numerous runs for office – has a bit of a history with The Evening Sun. And not a good one.

Several years school board races prior to this one, PSBC had committed a cardinal sin. He had distributed campaign flyers which to even a discerning eye made it look like the Evening Sun was endorsing his candidacy.

I have seen the offending brochure, and I can tell you that the concerns of our editor and publisher regarding its distribution were entirely justified. The two-sided flyer featured the message to vote for this particular candidate as well as a copy of a letter to the editor he had written. That wasn’t a problem, but the fact that the page prominently displayed the paper’s banner (the big logo at the top of the front page most people mistakenly refer to as the masthead) and a thumbs up graphic definitely was.

The offender got off with a slap on the wrist: the pronouncement that his name would never again sully the pages of the aforementioned publication.

Over the intervening years, Jeff has relaxed this policy slightly. When previously the PSBC’s name would only appear as a footnote in election coverage, he allowed me to write a full bio last year. But the understanding was that no photo would accompany the piece. PSBC was happy with this arrangement. And it was our plan for this year, as well.

But, the night of the budget hearing, he decided to push the issue. And when I declined to take his photo as requested, he proceeded to have what, if he had been 5, I would have called a temper tantrum. Yep, he ran screaming down the school corridor, spewing hatred for The Evening Sun and its staff to anyone who would listen. And of course, those who were listening were unaware of the backstory and instantly jumped on the bandwagon.

After a parting word to the PSBC that he knew the deal and if he’d had a problem he should have taken it up with Jeff earlier in the campaign, rather than waiting until the night before the piece was due to be published, I made my exit.

Walking to my car, I pulled out my phone and dialed Jeff’s number. Focused on the task as I was, it took me a minute to realize someone was shadowing my steps. Oh, and shouting at me.

Yep, you guessed it. The PSBC.

Once he realized I was on the phone – and probably rightly assuming who I was calling – his tune changed slightly. I would imagine it had begun to dawn on him that perhaps verbally attacking one of Jeff’s reporters was probably not the best way of getting back into our esteemed editor’s good graces. But at that point the damage was already done.

And not only with Jeff. Until that point, I’d always been polite and respectful in my dealings with this man, whether I’ve encountered him at a school board meeting or around town. I even advocated on his behalf to Jeff last year, which helped him get equal billing with the other candidates in our coverage. But I don’t take kindly to verbal abuse.

And, as if the events of Tuesday evening weren’t enough, the situation was further worsened by the PSBC’s wife, who called The Evening Sun offices the next morning pretending to be an investigative journalist. She doesn’t use his name, and seems to be under the impression that most of us don’t realize their relation. I deferred her call to Jeff, who handled it appropriately, in my opinion.

You might have already surmised that this incident is what led Jeff to be a little extra scathing in his review of Norwich’s Meet the Candidates night. And you would be right.

Because the PSBC has most assuredly torched that proverbial bridge.

And that was before he was found lurking in the parking lot one morning, waiting for a staff member to arrive so he could pass of a letter to the editor he wanted to submit.

Thank heavens he didn’t actually get elected.

Follow me on Twitter … @evesunmelissa.