Darrell Ehrlick: Max-ed out: Final screed from our county's treasurer

2014-03-02T00:00:00Z 2014-03-21T10:34:21Z Darrell Ehrlick: Max-ed out: Final screed from our county's treasurerBy DARRELL EHRLICK The Billings Gazette
March 02, 2014 12:00 am  • 

On Thursday, Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington may have outdone himself.

He apologized for a letter he sent earlier this week in which he rattled off groups of people who were destroying America.

I didn't think I could be more shocked by something Lenington wrote.

I was wrong.

And really, that's why the apology comes first in this column. While the apology doesn't necessarily wipe out the words or the damage thoughts like this do, in this age of short news cycles in which sound bites play a ping-pong game of one-upmanship, apologizing and taking something back is just about as rare as the backwards ideas Lenington touted in his letter.

It's also important to lead with the apology because it raises another important topic — something to think about: How does a community reconcile and forgive? Those answers, though, are beyond my limited wisdom and pay grade.

However, Lenington's original letter, which The Gazette published on Wednesday, was not a decision we took lightly. In this day of immediate and breaking news, we sat on the letter for more than 24 hours. We contemplated what to do with Lenington's "last" letter, apparently plagiarized in part and railing against nearly anyone who isn't white, male, Christian or conservative.

We get plenty of letters that aren't just factually suspect, but that also espouse hatred or bigotry. Lenington's views are by no means novel.

That's sad, but it's also the truth.

However, Lenington isn't just anyone and we're not that hard up for letters or ideas more worthy of contemplation.

Lenington is a longtime public official. He's been elected and re-elected by the voters of Yellowstone County. What he does matters — and therefore what he says should matter, too.

This recent letter lamented the destruction of some fantasy America that never was; Lenington blamed blacks, Latinos, the unemployed and many others (the loony left media included).

The letter was a publishing Catch-22.

It would have been an easy choice to dismiss the letter. Sometimes folks believe that if we do not print their letter that we've denied them their First Amendment rights. But there's no law stating we have to print all the letters we receive. The First Amendment guarantees a person the right to free speech, not the right to get published in The Gazette.

Besides, the letter was clearly outside our 250-word limit. So it would have been easy to disqualify Lenington's letter on a technicality.

It would have also been easy to see Lenington's letter as hate-speech — a call to action against specifically targeted groups of people based on ethnicity or sexual orientation. That would normally stop the letter, too.

If we print the letter, I knew that we would be accused of sensationalizing the issue. People would say the only reason we did this is to sell papers. Even worse, we'd run the risk of making Max a martyr.

Throughout the process, I could not help but wonder if this was Lenington's less-than-discreet way of gaining the spotlight one more time to try to spread his message. I am fully aware that publishing his letter may indeed be giving him a stage and spotlight he seems to crave in the worst way.

And yet when we considered the letter, I also worried that if we were to simply ignore this deplorable writing we would somehow become an unwitting accomplice by not letting folks know that a public official holds these extreme views.

I cannot say how Lenington draws that fuzzy line between beliefs and practice. In other words, I can't be sure that if a black or Latino couple comes into his office to protest a tax bill what he'll say. Lenington, in his interview with Gazette reporter Eddie Gregg, claimed his politics don't interfere with his practices. But with continued writings like these, you can forgive me for wondering. And if his actions don't match his beliefs — if he really is fair-minded in his daily interactions with the public — then are all of these sinister beliefs just bluster?

As a person whose entire career has been a practice in objectivity and setting aside personal views in order to get all sides of a story, I get that many professions are called upon to shelve personal beliefs in order to get a job done.

But Lenington's views aren't a business matter like choosing where to buy copier paper or whether to join the Chamber of Commerce. And his office — that of collecting taxes — isn't exactly optional.

In the end, we decided to publish the letter, but not as a letter to the editor. We wouldn't give most folks the ink and paper so that they could disparage entire groups. Instead, we printed his letter and we framed it with the context of a story about Lenington's ongoing political views.

The decision to print the letter was made because our job isn't to put Lenington or any other person in the best light, but the brightest. We have to err on the side of disclosure and transparency when it comes to public officials. In this case, we hope that the public having all the information is better than simply ignoring these hurtful words — ones that Lenington ripped off from someone else without even having the courage or creativity to write them himself.

If any possible good can come from a situation like this, where a long-serving and -- by all other accounts — thoroughly competent public official (another class Lenington blames for the country's downfall) espouses such bankrupt ideas, it is the opportunity for Billings, Yellowstone County and Montana to affirm something positive. This Lenington letters are an opportunity for us to talk about acceptance and diversity, forgiveness and reconciliation.

It's interesting that the timing of these letters coincides with the 20th anniversary of "Not In Our Town," commemorating Billings' response to racial violence.

Not only are Lenington's letters a good chance to repeat the lessons of "Not In Our Town," but they're also a sharp reminder that celebrating an anniversary doesn't mean the job is done.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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