Although the odor still permeates the air, the dust from Croton’s officially imprimatured water bill hoax may have settled enough for Crotonblog to analyze the reverberations and implications of this example of fiscal bad management. Crotonblog offers this piece as a follow-up to the “What’s Up, Doc?” piece of December 22 entitled, “Are Croton Officials for Real? Or Do They Just Play at Being Officials on TV?”
Every community is interested in the image and public face it projects, the way the world sees it. Croton boasts of its history as the starting point of the Old Croton Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that supplied pure Croton water to New York City in 1842. Croton is proud of the massive Croton Dam, reputed to be the second largest cut-stone structure in the world after the Pyramids of Egypt (although the dam is not in Croton but actually in Cortlandt). Croton also basks in its cultural heritage. In the early years of the 20th century, it was a bastion in the fight for women’s suffrage. Making it a veritable “Greenwich Village of the North,” the bohemian journalists, novelists, poets, playwrights, actors and artists who settled in Croton’s bucolic precincts made the world sit up and take notice.
But that proud history and heritage have all been eclipsed by one tragicomic managerial decision that left an ugly stain on Croton’s good name and now throws into question the administrative oversight of this tiny village of some 7,800 souls. Are the unelected, appointed officials of Croton autonomous, with the Mayor and members of the Board of Trustees serving only in an occasionally advisory capacity? Or are the elected officials truly in charge, in which case either the water-bill hoax had their blessing or it represents monumental aberrant behavior and notoriously bad judgment on the part of the unelected, appointed officials involved.
There may be some elected officials—but few residents—who will want to play down what happened and sweep it under the proverbial rug. Among the unanswered questions in this sordid affair is why the village government felt it had exhausted all traditional avenues of communication before concocting and resorting to an underhanded ruse. Did the village note in its monthly newsletter that certain residents were dilatory about responding to requests to set up an appointment? Did the village send certified letters to wayward residents to ensure that they had received proper notice and establish proof of receipt? Was the residents’ tardy behavior mentioned in public as a nudge at broadcast board meetings?
Did the village make arrangements to perform the desired installation at hours other than so-called “normal business hours” on weekdays to accommodate commuters who are away from Croton during the day? If so, did the village supply postage-paid reply cards on which residents could set their own appointment times? Or does the village insist that the Water Department’s working hours are so absolutely inflexible that “it’s our way or the highway”? (In this case, the highway turned out to be the low road.) Yet the village can respond to water emergencies 24 hours a day. There are many imaginative strategies by which the desired cooperation could have been achieved without resorting to the subterfuge of false billing.
One of our obligations as adults in our society is to set an example for young people. What kind of an example did village government set in this instance except to show young people that any means, however underhanded and reprehensible, are acceptable to achieve an end? If the net result of this incident is that young people trust government even less than they already do and become even more cynical about the world we are leaving them, then what happened has long-lasting and earth-shaking dimensions, and must be roundly condemned. It is bad enough that our national government used lies and deceit to trick this country into a futile and bloody war. Has deception as policy now trickled down to the ultimate local level, a tiny village? If so, then from top to bottom it is a dishonorable world we have made and which we will bequeath to our children.
The inevitable follow-up to the question asked in the title of this editorial is “And what has their hoax wrought?” To understand the magnitude and the consequent impact of this foolish decision to scare residents into compliance by using the power of government to manipulate the village’s supposedly impregnable record-keeping systems, Crotonblog has examined how the rest of the world saw the incident.
The story began, of course, with a December 21 report by Robert Marchant of the Journal News, a Gannett newspaper. Gannett just happens to be the largest chain of newspapers in the United States. Although The Journal News often has difficulty breathing life into pallid news stories originating in this part of Westchester, when the water bill hoax story fell into their laps, they knew they had a story with “legs,” and they knew exactly what to do with it. In newspaper parlance, they “fronted” the story. They not only put it on the front page, they made it the day’s lead (pronounced “lede”) story, positioning it “above the fold”—on the top half of the front page. This makes it visible to readers even before the newspaper is unfolded, signifying that in the editors’ eyes this was the most important news story of the day.
Associated Press writer Jim Fitzgerald also recognized it as a story of wider significance and rewrote Marchant’s account for a national audience. And what a national—or rather international—audience it turned out to be! Newspapers as well as radio and TV stations in the U.S. and Canada immediately picked up the embarrassing story and ran with it. It would be no exaggeration to say that the report spread like a California wildfire. Ironically, publicity hounds like Donald Trump cannot buy fast-breaking saturation exposure like this. His publicists would give their right arms for the kind of notoriety this story achieved. Even the respected financial magazine Forbes saw the hoax as an unusual action by a governmental entity and reported it.
It remained for the freewheeling blogging world to latch on to the story and provide the most pithy and scathing judgments on the Zambrano-Herbek folly. One blog labeled the story as “weird news” and described Croton-on-Hudson as “the village of the scammed,” a play on the title of the cult film classic, “The Village of the Damned.” Another advised readers to stay away from New York, calling it “The Vampire State,” twisting the state’s own self-applied motto, “The Empire State.” But the unkindest cut of all was the perhaps inevitable reference on one blog to Croton-on-Hudson as “Scrotum-on-Hudson.”
For all these reasons Crotonblog feels justified in asking Croton officials what they were thinking when they embarked on this Nixonian tactic. Can you imagine the uproar that would have ensued had any of the monopolistic public utilities—ConEd, Verizon or Cablevision—had tried to pull off a shabby stunt like sending fake bills as a device to get customers’ attention? Crotonblog’s reaction to the unseemly mess is to give the back of its hand to Messrs. Zambrano and Herbek. Nice going, fellas. You really did Croton proud. And, incidentally, you just happened to set a new record for adverse publicity. Even stories about child molestation by clerics don’t get this kind of attention.
To show readers of Crotonblog how far and how fast the story traveled, here’s a small sampling of the story’s embarrassingly wide exposure: Radio and TV: Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, 1010 WINS (NY), WTOP (DC), WJLA (DC), WRAL (NC), CBS2 (CA), CBS4 (FL), CBS5 (WI), CBS7 (IL), KSL-TV (Salt Lake City). Newspapers: Akron Beacon-Journal (OH), Albany Times Union (NY), Ann Arbor News (MI), Bay City Times (MI), Belleville News-Democrat (IL), Biloxi Sun-Herald (MS), Bismarck Tribune (ND), Boston Globe (MA), Bradenton Herald (FL), Casper Star Tribune (WY), Centre Daily Times (PA), Charlotte Observer (NC), Columbus Ledger-Inquirer (GA), Contra Costa Times (CA), Denver Post (CO), First Coast News (FL) as “strange and unusual news,” Flint Journal (MI), Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (IN), Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (IN), Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX), Grand Rapid Press (MI), Helena Independent Record (MT), Houston Examiner (TX) as “strange news,” Jackson Citizen Patriot (MI), Kalamazoo Gazette (MI), Kansas City Star (MO), Lakeland Ledger (FL), Lansing Bureau, Lexington Herald Leader (KY), Macon Telegraph (GA), Miami Herald (FL), Minneapolis-St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN), Monterey County Herald (CA), Muskegon Chronicle (MI), Myrtle Beach Sun-News (NC), New Orleans Times Picayune (LA), Newsday (NY), NY Daily News (NYCity), NY Post (NYCity), Saginaw News (MI), San Jose Mercury News (CA), Sioux City Journal (IA), South Florida Sun-Sentinel (FL), Staten Island Advance (NY), The State (SC), Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada), Washington Post (DC), Wichita Eagle (KS), Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (PA), Worcester Telegram (MA).