Like many in Lee County and the rest of North Carolina, we’ve been watching with interest as former Lee County Commissioner and current Lee GOP Chairman Jim Womack earned Raleigh’s rebuke for attempting to convene a meeting of a governmental body which he apparently isn’t a member of, although we haven’t had much of our own to add.
Womack served for two years as chair of the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission, which was tasked with drawing up rules for hydraulic fracturing operations in North Carolina. In 2015, that body was replaced by the North Carolina Oil and Gas Commission, but a lawsuit and subsequent court ruling led to that body’s dissolution and reconvening a year later.
But Womack, who called a meeting of the body which had originally been set for Wednesday in the Lee County Government Center, was not specifically reappointed to the Oil and Gas Commission by Sen. Phil Berger after its dissolution. That led environmental officials in Governor Roy Cooper’s administration to the interpretation that Womack has no legal authority to call meetings of the Oil and Gas Commission because he’s not a member.
Although the News and Observer reported that is “an interpretation Womack and (Sen. Berger) reject,” the Herald reported the next day that he’d postponed the meeting after “conferring with competent legal minds.”
It was interesting to note in Wednesday’s Herald piece that Womack’s quotes came entirely from either an email he sent to members of the Oil and Gas Commission or “an opinion column written for the Herald.” That column, which argued that members of the Cooper administration were the real lawbreakers, appeared today. Many pieces on the Herald’s editorial page aren’t linked on its website, including this one.
Now, the Herald has the right to publish columns by anyone it chooses. In fact, a recent column by Editor G. Chambers Williams III (subscription required) stated that “more local content, provided by local political parties, public figures and other civic-minded contributors” would begin appearing on the editorial page with a goal of “diversify(ing) the content of the opinion pages to present a variety of local issues and viewpoints.”
All fine and dandy.
But again, if Womack was given the opportunity to comment for Wednesday’s story, he must have declined or been unavailable, because there’s no such comment native to that story. Further, Womack has declined or been unavailable for comment in multiple recent Herald stories (subscription required), and he’s apparently blocked Herald reporter Zachary Horner from viewing his Twitter feed:
Public figures don’t always like journalists. That’s part of being a journalist, and most journalists would probably tell you that it doesn’t hurt their feelings when it happens. So it’s not that astonishing that the chairman of the county Republican Party has blocked a journalist.
Womack and his wife, school board member Sherry Lynn, have taken lumps in the Herald on multiple fronts this year. But none of those beatings are the fault of the journalist in question. So it’s is kind of astonishing that Womack can work to box out someone whose job is to inform the public about public issues and then be rewarded with seven or eight hundred words of unedited column space.
It’s troubling at best, and at worst it’s an abdication of the newspaper’s responsibility to keep its readers fully informed.
Williams wrote in his column that “we only ask the entities and individuals providing these writings do so with the goal of helping bring the community together toward our common goals, rather than tearing us apart.” It’s a laudable goal, but as long as the approach to it includes letting a public figure bypass its news operation for a spotlight on the opinion page, it probably won’t be a goal that’s met.