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ROOTING FOR THE NEWS

The romantic mirage of small-town life is bucolic contentment. This is one of life's sadder delusions. In remote Arizona, the disputes are loud, frequent and messy. Worse, the intimate potholes of your life fascinate your neighbors. Your debts, your love interests, your spouse's shingles-it's all grist at the local coffee shop. Until you walk in.

If it's peace of mind you seek, you're better off in Phoenix where your big-city anonymity guarantees you tranquillity, at least until you're the victim of a drive-by shooting, when your anonymity gets you a toe-tag labeled John Doe."

All of which is a long, winding, dirt road to Prescott, where the locals are in an uproar. Again. Folks are fussing over their devastated gardens-and what to do about them-or they're arguing about Kathy O'Halleran. The cultivated flower beds are under attack from meandering javelinas, while O'Halleran has started her own newspaper; it's unclear which, the pigs or the paper, is raising more hell.

Just as the Catholic concept of God is split into three parts-the Father, Son and Holy Ghost-so, too, is the javelina. A wild pig in some picky biological sense, spiritually the javelina is an unholy trinity that looks part bat, part porcupine and a good deal Jack Russell terrier with tusks.

The javelinas are making short work of Prescott's gardens. When the pigs come across a fresh row of bulbs, they bury their snouts in the furrows and bulldoze their way into gladiola Saturnalia.

One faction of enraged gardeners, unfettered with regard for its neighbors' opinions, has hit upon a controversial solution. After visits to Prescott's Animal Park, the yard tenders are lacing their flower beds and vegetable patches with tiger manure. Proponents claim that when the javelinas get one whiff of the tiger droppings, the rats in pig-drag retreat on the run.

Well, you can only imagine the comments regarding tiger therapy. Listening to a couple of hoe-heads argue the efficacy of a big cat's nightsoil certainly puts more pressing matters-global warming, youth gangs, co-dependency-into perspective.

As heated as the tiger-javelina controversy is, the belly-roars over Kathy O'Halleran are twice that.

A single mother of two, a journalist for 15 years, O'Halleran has more fight in her than a reception after an Irish wedding. She finds herself in the middle of a small town where the newspaper situation is skittish, at best.

The Prescott Courier was once a daily newspaper of some reputation. Its former editor, Charlie Waters, now toils at the Los Angeles Times. Today, the Courier is directed by Jim Garner and as one critic put it, I liked him better when he drank more and attended church less."

Garner's a sober journalist, whose most recent incarnation is not that of a muckraker. In fact, he has treated investigative journalism as if exposes were hung around the neck with a wreath of tiger dung.

Still, the absence of hard-probing stories in Garner's newspaper is not what has truly soured the disaffected in Prescott; they think the paper is mean.

When questioned, observers point to the coverage of the campaign to unseat Senator John Hays as proof of the Courier's wicked ways.

They labeled him a tax-and-spend liberal," said Jonne Markham, who managed ex-Senator Hays' ill-fated campaign.

A conservative rancher, John Hays is as much a tax-and-spend liberal as Jesse Helms is a taxi dancer in a homosexual nightclub. But by the time the Prescott Courier finished linking Hays to the Reverend Al Sharpton, Gennifer Flowers and Chappaquiddick, John was toast. He was replaced in the Senate by the dirt-eating, Bible-memorizing, gingham-dress-wearing Carol Springer.

Jonne Markham refused to discuss the Courier.
Jonne's daughter, Janet, does not suffer the discretion malaise.
She said her mother was so angry at the Courier she began marking up the mistakes in Garner's workÏafter it was published-and mailing it back to the editor to show the old goat what a knucklehead he was.

The work kept Ms. Markham occupied. Just last month the Courier ran a story about the death of a statewide figure.

Famous Tribal Chairman of Navajo Nation Dies," said the April 17 headline.
Unfortunately, the deceased party, Dewey Healing, was a Hopi, not a Navajo.
This is more than just the copy-editing equivalent of referring to Gloria Steinem as Peaches."

The Hopis and Navajos are bitter enemies. In fact, Dewey Healing is specifically remembered for suing Navajo squatters and beginning the most publicized Indian-relocation battle since the infamous Trail of Tears." The 30-year-old litigation is still unresolved.

Identifying Dewey Healing as a Navajo is on a par with identifying David Duke's momma as a Watusi; everyone concerned is insulted.

Into this Gilbert and Sullivan journalism walked Kathy O'Halleran. She went to work at the Courier's cross-town rival, the mighty yet weekly Prescott Sun.

 

The latest owner of the Sun, Gordon S. Schrader Jr., hails from Iowa, where his family operated newspapers. To his credit, Schrader allowed O'Halleran to practice hard-nosed journalism.

From January of 1990 when she arrived until January of 1992 when she quit in a huff, Kathy O'Halleran wrote a remarkable series of stories that gave the locals a charge: She uncovered an illegal hazardous-waste site near a school in Chino Valley operated by the Arizona Department of Transportation; she publicized bid irregularities involving solid waste and the City of Prescott; and she wrote about the sexual harassment of a police dispatcher.

When the City of Prescott had no money for improvements on Willow Creek Road despite having gone to the voters twice for increased sales taxes, O'Halleran discovered the city had bungled two major projects because of design flaws, cost overruns and inaccurate estimates on right-of-way purchases.

She attended the Halloween House on the town square run by Potter's House, bedrock Christians whose world headquarters is located in Prescott. O'Halleran informed readers that their kids were attending a holiday exhibit meant to replicate Hell. In the Potter's House version of the inferno, abortions were performed and nuns were hanged.

After construction began on a new police station, O'Halleran investigated complaints regarding breaches of safety and unnecessary expenditures on luxury items.

She determined that the tax rolls were embarrassingly outdated and skewed. The owner of a $398,000 home paid $353 in taxes because there had been no updating since the parcel in question was a bare lot. In contrast, the owner of another house valued at $83,500 paid $1,100. Yavapai County decided to reevaluate its tax rolls.

O'Halleran found state records that revealed the area suffered from radioactively contaminated water. The ensuing panic forced the closure of wells, a state Senate investigation, the involvement of the Governor's Office and the admission by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality that 80 percent of Arizona's rural water companies were in violation of the water purity standards.

After a little girl named Bambi was beaten to death by her mother's boyfriend, O'Halleran shocked her readers by revealing that the state Department of Economic Security had returned the youngster to the home where she would eventually perish despite previous incidents of abuse.

A long-running undercurrent of tension exists between the City of Prescott and the Yavapai tribe, whose reservation sits just outside town. Rather than meet city codes and pay city taxes, both Wal-Mart and the Sheraton Hotel located on the reservation. The City of Prescott, through numerous spokesmen, fed the hostilities by constantly blaming the Yavapai for lost revenues.

O'Halleran explored the antagonism and discovered that, in fact, the sales-tax revenues in Prescott had not declined. They'd risen. If anyone behaved in bad faith, it wasn't the Yavapai, it was Prescott's city council who, for ten years, had refused to pay the agreed-upon sum for a utility easement granted by the Yavapai.

Not everyone in Arizona appreciated this kind of journalism.
Bill Otwell, arguably Northern Arizona's most famous architect, designed the police station O'Halleran investigated.

I thought she was looking for dirt where none existed," observed Otwell.
O'Halleran acknowledges that many of the calls she got regarding the police station were wildly inaccurate.

Still, she says, there were some building-code violations and, They used marble for floors, and people around here found that extravagant." ²Of course they did.

The point is that for two brief years, Kathy O'Halleran didn't just raise holy journalistic hell. Though she did indeed do just that. The point is that for two brief years, the people of Prescott had a place to call when they thought their neighbors were getting away with something. That's how journalism happens.

People called Kathy O'Halleran and told her when their kids were frightened by a Halloween exhibit, when the police had marble floors, when taxes weren't fair. And by God, she'd check it out.

For two years, Kathy O'Halleran was a one-woman pot of coffee in the town square and folks stopped by to have a cup. By the time she was done, Prescott, Arizona, didn't seem so bucolic.

This January, Kathy O'Halleran's career came to an end. She was doing the background reporting for a story when her publisher, Gordon Schrader, asked her to lunch. Her research was already shaping itself into an article. ²The faculty at Yavapai Community College was in open revolt over the administration of the school's president, Dr. Paul Walker. The teachers had already passed a resolution of ÔNo confidence" in the administration. Following the vote, Dr. Paul Walker ordered a controversial meeting between the administration and faculty. O'Halleran slipped into the meeting unannounced.

 

The publisher skipped the small talk at their luncheon.
`You're not doing this story,' he told me," recalled O'Halleran. His face got beet red.

He told me I was catering to a couple of rabble-rousers and not the interests of the community," she remembered.

I told him that the vote of no confidence was unprecedented. Then I asked if Dr. Walker had called him."

O'Halleran was suspicious because Schrader is president of the Prescott Rotary chapter to which Dr. Walker belongs.

Yes, Dr. Walker had called. He [Schrader] told me I had 24 hours to think about my ethics and if I decided to resign, he would accept," O'Halleran said.

I didn't need 24 hours to think about my ethics, and I certainly didn't need 24 hours to think about Gordon Schrader's ethics, either. I quit."

²When a call is placed to Schrader's house, a tape machine clicks on, You've reached Gordon the Greatest."

²When Schrader calls back, his account of the lunch does not differ sharply from O'Halleran's. But Schrader and O'Halleran view the same facts from widely different perspectives. It's as if Kim Basinger and Divine are sharing the same bustier.

For Schrader the ethics in question have nothing whatsoever to do with printing or not printing an article critical of a fellow Rotarian.

She had violated a closed meeting. She sneaked in at the back of the room. I left myself wide open to a lawsuit."

As a point of law under Arizona's open-meeting statutes, O'Halleran had every journalistic right to attend Dr. Walker's secret gathering. When Schrader discusses O'Halleran's ego, however, he begins to get at whatever it was that stuck in his craw. She's more creating the news than disseminating it. At one point in the lunch she said to me, `Maybe you don't know who I am.'

That's the wrong thing to say to your publisher. She became too immersed in her stories."

To Schrader, a worldly Midwesterner, the entire Yavapai Community College flap is a bit mysterious.

The faculty appears to be arguing for the sake of arguing. Some of the students think things are going fine. There are some rabble-rousers. It almost seems, `What's the fight about?' In all honesty, it's blown out of proportion."

ROOTING FOR THE NEWS... v5-13-92


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