Park Authority can’t wager on leniency

Newspapers are notorious hotbeds of gambling. Since the birth of the first composing room, it seems, betting has been a part of the journalistic endeavor.

Oh, I’m not talking about illicit slot machines in the washroom or numbers running supervised by mobsters. I mean that all uncertain outcomes seem to be fodder for a pool. The printer who helped Thomas Paine produce Common Sense probably had a pool on where and when Paine would be caught and hung.

Several co-workers at a newspaper where I used to work couldn’t watch a game together or even play golf without betting on something every 10 minutes.

“Bet you a dollar the guy strikes out,” one would say.

“I’ll take that bet!” another would cry.

“Bet you 50 cents he bogies the hole.”

“Bet you a dollar this shot lands in the sand.”

“Bet you five your wife is serving pot roast tonight. ..”

In the 35 years I’ve been in this business, I’ve seen people working at newspapers bet on everything from who will win an election to whether the paper will get out on time.

When I was expecting my first child the newsroom took bets on when it would be born and whether it would be a girl or a boy. As it happened the child was so late in coming that he and I outlasted the pool dates and they had to give ME the $75. (I’ve always been grateful to my son Charlie for that effort.)

As the NCAA championship begins, employees at all kinds of businesses, not just newspapers, clip the grid out of the newspaper, and fill it out to join the office pool.

Super Bowl time brings those sheets with lots of squares on it. You know, the one where you put your name in a box and then watch the game to see if the score matches the numbers on your square. Even people who know nothing about football feel compelled to get in on that one for five or 10 bucks.

Such activities are usually done at lunch hour or on break. Most places frown on such activities on company time, likely because any frivolous activity on company time isn’t particularly productive.

My point is that many, many law-abiding citizens participate now and then in harmless, private, non-profit, penny-ante bets or pools. Rounding up all such offenders and crushing these scofflaws would take up all the time of the Prince William police. Heck, they might even have to enlist the aid of the Sheriff’s Office.

Why, then, you may ask, did the pool run by employees at the Prince William Park Authority end up on the front page and why do we keep asking questions about it? As one letter writer pointed out it “did nothing more than provide camaraderie … and some basic fun for an organization under the gun from (the county) board and your newspaper.”

Well, here’s the thing. People paid by public dollars need to be especially careful about obeying the law. Unfortunately for them, they must be above board in what they do.

Park employees have no business wasting your money by using the equipment you financed or the time for which you are paying either through taxes or park fees to produce or play a game, legal or illegal.

And let’s talk about that “under the gun” business a little. Perhaps an office pool wouldn’t be such a big deal if the office involved were previously an example of efficiency and good government, but this one is not.

Here you have an organization that has already demonstrated it is not running very well. Last year it received more than $14 million in taxpayer money to build and operate parks and make them profitable. But the last two parks they built were overdue and way over projected cost.

I’ve read the memo sent out to pool participants and it paints the picture of a pool so complicated and so well organized and rules so well enforced, that one wishes the whole authority had demonstrated such clarity of mind and action instead of the loosey goosey feeling one gets from incidents going back several years.

I had a voice mail last week that I did not get a chance to hear until late Friday night, so I haven’t been able to return the call. But the caller, Park Authority spokeswoman Beth Robertson, cited what she considers our unfairness and said that we hadn’t told the whole story. Our reporter Diane Freda was told the same thing.

I’ve told Diane to ask these people to tell us the part of the story they believe we have not reported. IF there are elements to the pool story or reasons for cost overruns that we haven’t reported, then we certainly want to do so.

But the callers have said that they would no longer talk to Diane. Roberston’s message on my voice mail said we could send another reporter if we like but that they will not talk to Diane.

I’m not sure how they think this will help their situation. Maybe they think Diane is the only one with questions they don’t like, but she’s not. Many of the questions our reporters ask come from citizens, so even if we changed the face, the questions still might make Park Autority people uncomfortable.

In any case, the Park Authroity is part of Diane’s beat and it will stay that way. If Park Authority folks want “their side” of any story in the paper, they’ll have to tell her about it.

Also, there are some questions to which any citizen has a right to an answer. If Diane, as a citizen, has trouble getting answers to those, we’ll have to revert the provisions of the state’s FOIA, I guess.

Another e-mail writer is correct: This pool thing is not the crime of the century. But it was and is worth continuing examination because:

1. Employees who are paid with our money were breaking the law on public property and the public dime. (If they were going to break the law, they should have done it on non-public property like the rest of us.)

2. A citizen could wonder whether if they had spent less time developing “camaraderie,” they might not have needed someone to step in and reorganize them.

So, newspapers and citizens and supervisors will continue to ask uncomfortable questions until we are confident things are really fixed at the Park Authority.

Susan Svihlik is executive editor of the Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger and is now taking bets on whether or not we will get the rest of the “whole story” from those who complain we haven’t told it.

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