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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

When is a mayor not a mayor?

When is a mayor not a mayor?
When he’s, uh, when he’s, hmmmm … OK, I’ll bite. When is a mayor not a mayor?
When he’s a private citizen.
Question is, can he be both at the same time?
Scott Johnson, the Saratoga Springs mayor since January, raised that question recently after his letter to the editor was published.
The letter supported one of the two Republicans seeking their party’s endorsement to run for city judge. Johnson was writing his opinion, not speaking on behalf of the City Council or as the city’s spokesman. He was careful to not distinguish himself as mayor, and didn’t mention his position in the letter or as part of his signature. He wasn’t trying to throw his mayoral weight around. So he specifically signed off as plain old Scott Johnson, Saratoga Springs.
The editor placing the letter on the page, recognizing who Johnson was, inserted “Mayor” before his name.
Was it the right thing to do?
I think it was necessary to identify the letter writer as the mayor. When you’re the elected figurehead of the city, you forsake the role of “private citizen,” at least while you’re in office. After that, you’re still likely to be labeled “former mayor.”
It would have seemed like an oversight or an intentional omission to not clarify for readers that this Scott Johnson is the one who happens to be mayor of Saratoga Springs.
In hindsight, though, there were a couple of ways the newspaper could have identified him other than adding the title to his name.
One way would have been to follow his identification with an editor’s note in italics saying the writer is mayor of Saratoga Springs.
That would have made it clear that it was the newspaper, not the letter writer, who was providing that information.
Another way would have been to talk to Johnson and with his approval insert a line within the body of the letter saying something like “I am writing this as a citizen, not in my official capacity as mayor.”
Either way, he’s still mayor. Whether he’s running a council meeting, walking the dog, or writing a letter to the editor, he’s mayor. He can speak his own mind, not acting as a city spokesman. But he’s not a private citizen so long as he’s in office. Being identified as mayor comes with the territory.
So while I appreciate the precision with which he attempted to clarify in his letter that he was not writing in an official capacity, he’s still mayor.
The Saratogian and other newspapers wrestle with identification issues when it comes to letters to the editor.
Some letter writers in elected or appointed positions have had their job titles inserted by an editor. Others, however, have gone through unidentified.
It is a public service to let readers know where a writer is “coming from,” so to speak. It’s also an impossible task.
A few elections ago, at the suggestion of politically connected readers, I tried to insist that letter writers’ political connections were inserted, using the list of party committee members as a guide. However, committee members came and went and complaints flew when they weren’t identified or when letters were supplied by their spouses, neighbors and great aunts.
Trying to say where everyone is coming from is impractical, unworkable and cannot be applied inconsistently.
But when a City Council member is writing a letter to the editor, he needs to be identified as such.
Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Mayor?

Barbara Lombardo is managing editor of The Saratogian. Her column is published Saturdays in the Life section. Contact her at


Blogger Horatio Alger said...

If you edited the content of the letter and inserted the word "mayor," your paper owes the mayor an apology. Indeed, he is still the mayor. But his being mayor wasn't part of the context of his letter -your staff ADDED it in and made no attempt to acknowledge they did this. Worse yet, you seem to be condoning this as an editor(and professor). Why not just acknowledge the mistake?

Becaues "Either way, he’s still mayor. Whether he’s running a council meeting, walking the dog, or writing a letter to the editor, he’s mayor," you claim.

Well, I think you have someone inexperienced at the copy desk and your paper lacks oversight that should be provided by a MANAGING EDITOR. This mistake is bush league, big time. You added something to a letter that wasn't there when it was submitted. Sure, edit the letters. But don't ADD to them.

As you relate, placing his position in ITALICS beneath his signature would have been the proper protocol for just about any paper this side of the equator. It's too bad the gaff wasn't caught by the managing editor before it went to press and damaged your already dwindling credibility with this administration.

February 18, 2008 at 9:30 AM 

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