Letters to the editor rarely make news, but a letter submitted by Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington got the attention of a national columnist who says his work was plagiarized.
The Billings Gazette’s policy is to confirm letters to the editor with a phone call or another letter before publication. Through that process we strive to ensure that the person whose name is on the letter actually wrote the letter.
We sometimes see letters that are not the original work of the person who put their name on the letter. We don’t print letters that we know have been plagiarized. We simply ask people to state their opinions in their own words.
The Gazette’s Voice of the Reader column provides a forum for diverse opinions. We encourage civil dialogue focused on issues, not on personal attacks. Letters are edited for length, clarity and to prevent libel. Not all letters are printed and generally we would not print a letter from a writer describing how he hates someone else.
However, Lenington is an elected county official. Voters deserve to know what he says about President Obama. That’s why his letter was printed Sunday, before the opinion editor knew about the plagiarism allegation. Lenington also serves as county assessor and superintendent of schools because the county commission consolidated those offices.
His job as school superintendent has created some confusion. He isn’t involved in operating or leading any local schools. Each school district has an elected school board and the board hires a superintendent, principal, or (in the case of very small districts) a head teacher. The Yellowstone County superintendent’s duties boil down to processing paperwork required by the state, a job that a clerk in Lenington's office handles. If there was a need for the county superintendent to conduct a hearing in a school, Yellowstone County would contract that work to a qualified education professional.
The subject matter of his letter raises an additional concern. We print many letters from people who disagree with Obama, letters from people who criticize the president and other public officials. People are entitled to their opinions.
However, hate is not OK. Hate is a horrible word that Lenington hurled at the president and first lady. We expect honesty, integrity and civility from our elected public officials. Lenington failed to demonstrate any of those qualities.
The Billings region is our home. We believe most of our neighbors want our growing community to be welcoming and inclusive. We invite readers, including Lenington, to join the Voice of the Reader forum to protest, argue, praise and complain — so long as they are civil, honest and say it in less than 250 words.