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TUPPER: Sometimes it hurts to praise

I didn’t want Mayor Ken Tracy to be our inaugural Person of the Year.

Seth Tupper, Daily Republic EditorWhen Korrie Wenzel, our publisher, came to me with the idea of creating the annual award, we determined that the winner should be the person who had the most impact on the Mitchell area during the past 12 months. I immediately suspected and feared we’d have to select the mayor.

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Who else had a broader, deeper and more lasting impact on Mitchell and the surrounding area during 2013? As we thought about potential honorees and accepted nominations from readers (thank you for sending those, by the way), we couldn’t find anybody more deserving than Tracy.

Think about the city projects that flourished in 2013 under Tracy’s leadership. The city’s second indoor ice rink was built and opened. A renovation and expansion of the Mitchell Public Library was begun. Several deteriorated buildings in southern downtown Mitchell, which were purchased by the city at Tracy’s urging, were demolished to make way for a future new city hall. The City Council approved a plan to eventually renovate the Corn Palace, vacate the attached City Hall and put tourism-themed exhibits in the vacated space.

All told, there is about $14 million in public funds tied up in those projects, all approved by the Mitchell City Council under the leadership of Tracy as mayor. All are public facilities that will likely last for decades and be used by thousands of people. All are projects that were discussed for years and finally got moving on Tracy’s watch.

It doesn’t get much more impactful than that.

So, you might ask, why was I reluctant to give Tracy the honor?

It’s because here at The Daily Republic, we take our responsibility as government watchdogs seriously. We believe one of our first and most important jobs as journalists is to stand apart from the powers that be and act as a critical observer. To borrow an old journalistic cliché, part of our role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Anything we do that makes us cozy or appear cozy with the government officials we cover could negatively influence our independence and readers’ perceptions of our independence. And if readers can’t trust that we’re acting independently of the government officials we cover, they won’t trust what they read in the paper, and they might stop buying and reading it.

I worry that publishing a long, positive story about the mayor could be bad for us.

On the other hand, I also believe in fairness. If we’re committed to critical coverage of public officials’ shortcomings, we ought to also be willing to cover their accomplishments, as long as we do it the right way. And I think we have in fact done it the right way with our story about the mayor.

Please note that we did not use our story about Tracy and his designation as Person of the Year to convince people that he is a great or even a good mayor. Readers may come to that conclusion, and personally I do believe he is a very good mayor, but we did not make that point in the story about Tracy that you see today on Page A1. Some sources we interviewed made that point. Others said they think Tracy is irresponsibly spending too much of the city’s money. We gladly included both viewpoints, because both support the ultimate purpose of the story, which is not to praise the mayor but to show, objectively, that his efforts had a large impact on the city in 2013.

That’s something anybody who pays any attention to city government would have to admit, whether or not they like Tracy or agree with the direction he’s taken our city.

The award is for “impact,” which my dictionary defines not necessarily as something positive or negative but as “a strong effect on someone or something.”

We think Ken Tracy fits that definition better than anybody else who was nominated, and so we congratulate him, somewhat begrudgingly, on his selection as our 2013 Person of the Year.