Newspaper editors appreciate letters to the editor. They demonstrate the readers’ engagement with the reporting and help establish the local newspaper as a place for a healthy exchange of ideas.
As the Tribune editor, I have faced criticism from some for publishing letters with misinformation. But a newspaper’s opinion section is not necessarily a place to turn to for facts. Rather, the ideas expressed are ideas, beliefs and opinions. You might not agree with one; you may think a letter does not state the facts. That’s OK. It’s called the opinion page for a reason.
As an editor, I do have some discretion. I can edit letters from readers or omit them completely. On occasion I have, particularly when letters attack a citizen or a local business. If readers have an issue with a person or a complaint about the service they receive, they should attempt to resolve it in person rather than expecting a letter will do that for them. But for the most part, after editing for grammar, spelling and punctuation, and sometimes verifying the author, I publish what is sent.
At the Feb. 1 Waunakee Village Board meeting, two letters to the editor printed in the Tribune became the subject of discussion. The debunking of one letter, almost a public shaming of the writer, took nearly as much time to discuss as some agenda items do. In fact, an agenda item was created to convey the facts about the subject — an engineering study to explore the Castle Creek Conservancy trail extension project.
Waunakee is growing, but is still a relatively small community with public officials who are responsive. Although village staff work remotely during this pandemic, they normally respond to phone calls and emails within a 24-hour period. Last week, I filed an open records request with the clerk and received a response within two hours.
I would urge those who pen letters to the editor to first check with village staff or board members if they have concerns about a project, policy or the board’s intentions as they make decisions. When those answers are inadequate or still seem misguided, that’s probably a good time to write a letter to the editor.
The village’s website, waunakee.com, contains contact information for staff and board members. Have a question? The homepage has an Ask Anything Waunakee feature. Waunakee citizens can also watch the village board’s Zoom meetings from the comfort of their homes on YouTube now.
Of course, it’s election time, and all open seats on the board are contested. Criticisms of local government are politically charged now, perhaps prompting board members to respond more readily. And that’s helpful. When elected officials communicate their objectives as they make decisions, the public has a clearer understanding.
This is not meant to discourage readers from writing letters to the editor. They engage others in important conversations about our community and help guide elected officials at not only the local level of government, but the state level, as well. We want to hear from you.