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Did paper go too far in chamber details?

Although last week’s News-Times included articles about escaped bison in Dilley, a female football player at Forest Grove High School and a school bus accident in Gaston, the story that generated the most chatter was our report on the Nov. 20 firing of Forest Grove Chamber Director Teri Koerner.

Comments generally fell into two categories.

On one side were community members who thanked the News-Times for its account of the former chamber director’s recent troubles in keeping up with the nonprofit's tax bills and other required paperwork. One chamber member said the specifics, first published on the News-Times website Nov. 21, helped explain to him why the board had taken such a drastic step. Another member said the news account was reassuring, as it dispelled some rumors that had been swirling around town and showed that the board was acting quickly to examine the organization’s financial situation.

On the other side were those who felt that the story was unfair or unnecessary. One business let us know it will no longer be advertising with us. The complaint from this individual, and others, was that the paper was “digging up dirt” about someone who (a) worked for a private organization and (b) had done much for her community.

The board, understandably, said little in its Nov. 20 announcement, which came after the News-Times' press deadline for the Nov. 21 paper. So, on the following day, we began checking into a tip that the dismissal was somehow related to taxes.

A quick check of Washington County records showed that property tax bills for the past two years (totaling nearly $5,000) had gone unpaid and that the chamber had also fallen behind on nearly $2,000 in payroll deduction taxes in the last two years, though is current as of this year.

That’s what we reported in our online story on Nov. 21, along with the news that the board had hired a temporary director.

In our print edition of Nov. 28, we added the news that the chamber board had begun looking into the organization’s paperwork two months ago after Koerner failed to provide a financial report at an August board meeting. Our story last week also added some background about previous financial troubles Koerner experienced while running a tourism reservation business in Ashland.

Reporting these details brought us no particular pleasure. The News-Times is an active member of the Forest Grove Chamber of Commerce. Publisher John Schrag served on the board of directors for several years and was part of the search committee that hired Koerner.

What’s more, Koerner was extremely supportive of the News-Times and worked with our staff on several printing projects. And, she was a great source of information about community events and news about local businesses, whether they were chamber members or not. We consider her a friend of the paper.

And it’s true that the chamber is a private organization, not a public agency. But it plays a very public role in Forest Grove. It’s the largest business organization in western Washington County and is involved in many community events.

The firing of the executive director was news and we felt it was our job to report it as thoroughly as possible.

We did, however, debate whether to include the information about Ashland, where Koerner left at least $15,000 in unpaid bills when she and her husband shut down their business, Southern Oregon Reservation Center, and moved to Texas in 2005.

The News-Times had known about this since 2009, when a former chamber member brought the publisher a copy of a 2005 article from the Ashland Tidings newspaper.

At the time, with Koerner on the job for three years, the news staff decided that her troubles in Southern Oregon didn't warrant a mention in our pages.

That changed two weeks ago, when the chamber board dismissed Koerner. We chose to include the Ashland information for a few reasons. First, rumors about her troubles down there were spreading through town last week and few people had the full story.

Second, Koerner’s difficulty in paying bills in Jackson County seemed relevant, following her failure to pay bills here in Washington County.

Finally, we felt that it was important to members of the current board to know that the News-Times had chosen not to report those details three years ago and that the publisher, who was then a chamber board member, had passed the information on to a member of the board’s executive committee.

So, did we go overboard in our reporting?

Koerner, for her part, told us she felt the information about her past financial troubles in Ashland was irrelevant to her departure from Forest Grove. At least a few others seem to share that view.

We’re comfortable with how we acted but, as always, are interested in hearing from those who disagree.




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