Years ago now, I wrote an editorial that didn’t sit well with Clayton Town Manager Steve Biggs. So Mr. Biggs did what no other town manager had ever done: He came to the newspaper office to talk to the editor.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Biggs told me I was wrong on the merits. But more than that, he told me I was wrong because I didn’t have all of the information I needed to form – and publish – an opinion. That could have been an indictment of the paper’s news gathering, but it wasn’t. Instead, the town manager accepted some culpability, saying town hall had possibly failed to disseminate all of the relevant information about the issue at hand.
That mattered to Mr. Biggs partly because he didn’t want the newspaper editor to go off half-cocked. But more important, Mr. Biggs rightly surmised that if the newspaper didn’t have all of the information it needed, then neither did the people of Clayton.
At the close of this visit, Mr. Biggs didn’t ask the newspaper for a correction or clarification of what I had written. Instead, he asked only that I give him a call if I ever had a question about an issue in Clayton.
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Since that visit many years ago I have emailed the town manager often, and he has never failed to respond quickly, even when my questions had little or nothing to do with a Clayton issue. I have, for example, asked the town manager for his opinion on issues in other Johnston County towns. I have asked him too about issues that have not surfaced in Clayton but might one day.
The relationship is sometimes strained. Last year, for example, I gave the town manager an especially hard time when I thought his budget took too much money out of the pockets of Clayton taxpayers. The perceived assault was so severe that the town’s public information officer dropped by my Clayton office to ask me to explain myself.
A lesser town manager might have severed ties with a newspaper editor after such a scathing editorial. But Mr. Biggs has continued to respond to my emails. On the night he announced he was leaving Clayton, I sent him an email with the subject line “Say it ain’t so.” He soon responded: “It’s been long, good run.”
Indeed it has been, and what I have enjoyed is a manager not afraid to engage in spirited debate with the local newspaper editor. I’m certain that Mr. Biggs has made me a more thoughtful and thorough editorial writer. I can only hope he got something in return.
I hope too that the Clayton Town Council, in choosing Mr. Biggs’ successor, will hire someone who knows that it’s better to engage the media than to ignore it.