A cautionary tale

A cautionary tale
Photo by Utsav Srestha / Unsplash

One of our good local newspapers that focuses on the county, not the town, published a column this week that deserves wide readership. It was written by Douglas Cunningham, the publisher and editor of the Putnam County News & Recorder. Although the newspaper is generally behind a paywall, he has made the full column available for free through this link. I've cut and pasted below the portion of his column about actions taken by Putnam's new county executive, Kevin Byrne:

"During last year’s campaign, we provided, as we do to virtually every candidate, a political rate card to Kevin Byrne’s staff, now our neophyte county executive. He ran unopposed. These papers, as much as we love them, are a business, and that space costs money. And the reply came back, “When will the Courier start running the Assemblyman’s press releases or his supporters’ letters to the editor?”

And my reply was: “The last letter we ran was from Frank Del Campo, Jan. 11. And we are open to others. We simply are not going to run every single one of Kevin’s news releases, nor his ‘guest columns.’ They really ought to be paid space. We’d be happy to sell you some. I know that some free shoppers are running the ‘guest columns,’ such as the Putnam Press Times. That’s not us.”

We are not the papers you want if you only want to read a verbatim rendering of Kevin’s latest Instagram post. We’re the honest broker. Not Kevin’s PR agent.

The Courier has been around for 182 years. The PCNR for 157 years. A long time. We’ve owned them since 2016. They are certainly papers of record in the communities we cover, in a de facto sense if not always by government designation. You see, a funny thing happened Jan. 3 when the Putnam County Legislature met. The Legislature, at its first meeting of the year, designates the official papers for the county, the ones that publish legal notices and such. And the Legislature designated only the Putnam County Press as an official paper. It has a grand total, wait for it, of 92 mail subscriptions. A figure that is hundreds of copies less than either the Courier or the PCNR, which, until now, had also been official papers for years.

Our legal notices, you should know, also appear online. They are not behind a pay wall. And they are archived, something the Putnam Press does not do. With us, if you want to search for a legal from several months ago – or several years ago – you can.

And what, you might reasonably ask, drove this? The lawmakers, including Chairman Paul Jonke, I am told reliably, complained to colleagues that we gave too much coverage to Legislator Nancy Montgomery, the only Democrat on the panel. They didn’t say this publicly, you see, that would be unseemly and petty, but it was a driver of the decision. For her part, Montgomery threw in with the Republicans and professed that a volunteer post our reporter Eric Gross held, as chairman of a county emergency services safety advisory board, could be seen as a “quid pro quo,” and consequently we were ethically challenged. The lawmaker from Philipstown, going against the papers published in Philipstown. I wonder what she thinks she’ll get out of this dalliance with the Republicans. I know they are both talking a lot right now about bipartisanship, she and Byrne. Do you think this is going to last? I don’t.

Meanwhile, I would be surprised if one of the other legislators could even explain this supposed conflict, let alone the quid, the pro and the quo.

And of course, know one that behind the Legislature’s move, at least the majority’s move, was our new executive, Kevin Byrne. Who agreed with Montgomery about this serious ethical conflict, as if Eric was doing something deeply wrong and trying to put one over on people. Byrne later fired him, by phone, from the volunteer post he has held for 25 years, as public information officer for the Bureau of Emergency Services. Twenty-five years. Longer than Byrne’s been working.

OK. It’s Byrne’s administration. He can do what he wants, and he is indeed doing it, with some abandon. My friends, this is all about the lawmakers, a majority of them, aided by Byrne, using the power of the county purse to punish speech they don’t like. Nothing more, nothing less. So they will beat up on the Courier and PCNR, depriving several thousand readers, including all of the readers in Philipstown and Putnam Valley, of ready access to legal notices. And also, other county advertising that the PCNR and Courier have provided for years.

Know this: No one brings the Courier and PCNR to heel. Absolutely no one. I’m a pretty even-tempered guy. Some people mistake that for weakness. We’ll see how that works out.

Then, the first penny drops on what’s behind all this. Who’s running the Putnam Press, with its 92 mail subscribers? According to the ownership statement provided to the county last fall, it’s “Gateway Dutchess Papers Inc.” in Mahopac and Willis H. Stephens Jr., as executor of the estate of Donald Hall, is publisher. Could that be, do you suppose, that this Stephens is the same Brewster lawyer as the Willis Stephens who served on incoming County Executive Kevin Byrne’s transition team?

Why yes, it is one and the same. Imagine the chances, right? It’s not a coincidence.

And yet Byrne and Montgomery lecture us on ethics. That’s some chutzpah.

Then, the second penny fell. During Byrne’s State of the County speech Thursday evening, he returned to a theme he had broached during the campaign, that Putnam should become a “Constitutional county”. I was struck enough to question him about it, lo these months ago. What other kind of county should we be? This kind of phrasing is used by fringe politicians who want to secede, by people who want to invade the Capitol building, by people who get into standoffs with the federal government. That kind of thing. He told me back then he intended only that the county demonstrate its support of the Constitution. He did not, I will tell you, like that I queried him on this.

From the text of his speech Thursday, as provided by the County Executive’s office: “And while we’re improving the mission statement, it’s also important that we cement our county’s commitment to our United State Constitution. These past several years tested many of our Constitutional rights and individual liberties. We cannot simply wash away and ignore federal or state laws we simply dislike, but we can, via resolution, redeclare our county’s support of our nation’s governing document and become a Constitutional County. Again, this will not be some fringe label or attempt to undermine state or federal laws that some of us may disagree with but will be a meaningful statement to stand up publicly, and as one county, supporting our existing United States Constitution.”

I wonder, today, how Byrne’s commitment to the Constitution fits, how it comports, with his commitment to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which explicitly speaks to the freedom of the press, the same press that county lawmakers and Byrne are using county monies to punish.

I didn’t know the Constitution was a pick-and-choose document, like a restaurant menu. Learn something every day, I suppose, here in Byrne-land."

For those interested in subscribing to PCNR, Cunningham is offering a special $10 Putnam Valley discount, obtained by calling him at (845) 265-2468. For the record, there is no financial arrangement between PCNR and watchingputnamvalley.com - no quid pro quo here!