Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Squanderer

When you squander $2 million of county taxpayer money making a sudden U-turn in your long-held position, like Fayette County Commissioner Vince Zapotosky, it's best to find someone else to blame.

Which is precisely what Zapotosky did at Tuesday's meeting, where he tried to make the Herald-Standard newspaper and reporter Patty Yauger the subject of attention, rather than his own ineptitude and wishy-washyness.

Zapotosky called Yauger the "personal reporter" of fellow Democratic Commissioner Al Ambrosini -- which only serves as affirmation that the stories Yauger has broken about Zapotosky's actions regarding the proposed new $30 million Fayette County prison have rattled Zapotosky.

You'd probably be rattled, too, if the public found out that you were responsible for obtaining and turning over architecturall designs for the new prison to a man from Morgantown, West Virginia, who in turn gave them to a contractor in that city -- a contractor that intended to bid on the project.

Yauger's work documented all of the above. Does anyone doubt that Zapotosky's action smacks of favoritism, bad judgement, or both? Who is he to unilaterally decide which construction firm should get the opportunity to "review" the plans drawn up by a firm he already voted to hire for that task?
His actions are important stuff for the public to know. Should Yauger be blamed for doing her job?

But instead of directing his ire where it belongs -- at the guy looking back at him in the mirror -- Zapotosky has tried to deflect attention away from himself. He has blamed Yauger for interviewing his personal courthouse assistant, Kathy Winkler, regarding the distribution of those plans, as though that's some high crime in the world of journalism.

Imagine that -- a reporter who asks questions! If Winkler didn't want to answer any, all she had to say was, "No comment." And, if she were so inclined, she could have added, "You'll need to ask Vince about that." We doubt that Yauger would have put Winkler in a headlock until she changed her mind.

Zapotosky also has taken aim at Ambrosini, blaming his long-time partner in running county government for sanctioning an "interrogation" of Winkler by Yauger. On WMBS radio's "Let's Talk" show Friday, Zapotosky trotted out Winkler as an on-air sidekick and tried to make the focus how upset she was at being asked questions during a nearly three-hour interview with Yauger.

To Zapotosky, at least, it was the Big Bad Wolf Ambrosini and Godzilla Yauger intimidating Little Miss Muffet Winkler to the point of tears.

Guess what, Vince? It goes with the territory. And surely you, of all people, know that.

You don't have to like Ambrosini for turning in your actions to the state Ethics Commission. But it looks like you will have to answer for them in some fashion. Maybe that's what has you squirming and backpedaling.

You don't have to like Yauger for pursuing this particular story, but that's not really an issue. And it's certainly, and thankfully, not your call. You can disparage Yauger as another commissioner's "personal reporter" all you want, but if you want to open that can of worms, we seriously doubt you'll end up voting to hire Yauger for a key position in the commissioner's office, like you did her Herald-Standard predecessor in covering county government.

In either case, we wouldn't want to be the elected official who slipped documents to a guy who passed them on to a contractor that, in turn, intended to bid on a $30 million project. If, as Zapotsky says, he just wanted an independent review of the plans and suggestions on how to save money, why didn't he make such a motion at a commission meeting and give ALL interested contractors the same opportunity?

When Zapotosky says, "Am I a day late and a dollar short? You betcha," it's important to remember that he's really two years and $2 million short. There's nothing he plans to do now in terms of exploring alternatives that he couldn't have done months or years ago regarding this project. He supported the idea of building a new prison, the site selection and acquisition, the hiring of a design firm and the expenditure of a significant amount of funds to get the project started. That wasn't Monopoly money he voted to hand out.

What's mystifying, though, is why so many people in the audience at Tuesday's meeting, people who rejoiced in the 2-1 vote to suspend the prison project, made snide remarks about Yauger and her reportage on this issue. Those catcalls are unwarranted.

You can't have it both ways. If it weren't for Yauger's reporting, Zapotosky wouldn't have been put on the hot spot that probably led to him changing his mind after two years as an ardent supporter of this costly prison project. His actions threw a big monkey wrench into the process. Opponents of the new prison may be glad that Zapotosky changed position and provided the second vote necessary to stop the project, but they shouldn't be blaming Yauger for turning in the best piece of investigative journalism the Herald-Standard has done in years.

Without Yauger's aggressive effort, no one would have known about these plans being slipped out of the courthouse and shipped to West Virginia. Certainly,Zapotosky wasn't telling the public that's what he was up to.

If Yauger heard about this and didn't follow up, many of those same critics would be pounding her for looking the other way. The focus should be on Zapotosky's actions -- his sudden change of heart and the propriety of handing out architectural plans for a yet-to-be-bid project -- not on the reporter and how she did her job.

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