Cynicism Springs from Shaded Truths

It can’t be easy finding the right words to lead a community filled with too many English and liberal arts majors. We pay careful attention, catching details that might slip past others. When chosen words are defended as merely imprecise or inartful, the hole being dug just gets deeper. If followers find themselves more attentive than their leaders, bad things can happen.

My son, for instance, approached Lane County’s proposed vehicle fee increase with an open mind. He thumbed through the voter’s guide, read the ballot description, and asked his father for advice. In the end, he voted against the measure because of one word: “modestly.”

“I just paid my registration fee and it wasn’t much,” he told me. “Now they want an extra 35 dollars per year? That’s not a lot of money, but I don’t think you can refer to it as ‘modestly increasing.’”

He came back to me later in the day, having done more research. “I paid $86 — and that was for two years. An extra $70 would almost double that amount. Who chose the word ‘modest’ to describe an 81.3 percent increase?”

Once voters are calculating your veracity with decimals, you’ve lost control of the conversation. The measure failed. No decimals required.

Both Eugene school board incumbents won reelection this week, but not by the usual amount. At least some vote loss can be attributed to another attempt to shade the truth, as if an honest appraisal would drive the public to its collective feinting couch.

The board hired a superintendent who didn’t end up being a very good fit. The employment contract they signed with Sheldon Berman had some expensive buy-out provisions. Both sides agreed that a voluntary departure would be cheaper and more palatable, and that no one needed to know the details of those negotiations.

So was he fired? Or did he quit? (Wait, he’s still here.) Even after losing a public records lawsuit, the school board tried to hide those details. It wasn’t until one of their attorneys accidentally sent along the contested documents without redactions that the truth was learned.

We haven’t learned (yet) how University of Oregon president Michael Gottfredson’s departure was negotiated. Lane Transit District announced that General Manager Ron Kilcoyne has decided to retire, but details quickly emerged that he’s looking for another job. If they meant to include air quotes around the word “retire,” those got lost along the way.

And then there’s the dog that didn’t bark — or bite. Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner won’t press charges against Larry LaThorpe for running a red light in Thurston, killing three children. Gardner defended his decision using the phrases “unwittingly ran a red light” and “brief inattention.” Something doesn’t quite add up.

If Oregon doesn’t have a criminal statue for involuntary or vehicular manslaughter, that would be relevant information here. If Gardner’s office is so short-staffed that only open-and-shut cases can be pursued, again, the public has a right to know.

It’s possible that the children began crossing the street before the light turned or that some piece of safety equipment did not function properly, but denying the public any relevant bits of information only creates other problems.

Cynicism is a habit of thought. It can start in places where the truth may not matter, but then spread into places where it does. Executive hirings and firings don’t directly concern us, but crossing the street does.

Will our safety require legislative or funding changes? Will those changes be more than modest? Hard questions.

Sometimes it’s easiest to start with the smallest instance and work up from there. Since adding a regional redemption center, some grocery stores have begun limiting the number of cans or bottles they redeem.

The poster announcing the change begins, “As required by Oregon State Law (ORS459A.737),….” In this case, the fib is in the second word.

I’ve read ORS459A.737. It allows a limit of 24 cans or bottles per day. It does not require it. Change one word and the poster would be telling the truth. But somebody believes we can’t handle even a nickel’s worth of truth.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs