Thursday, June 17, 2021

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Mincing Words: The true meaning of reward

Early in my writing career, I learned to avoid using words I didn’t understand. More importantly, I learned to choose words most readers would understand.

For the past 5,000 years, documenting the historical record has been one of man’s most stunning achievements. Of course, readers and writers in modern times have had a lot of help along the way.

Noah Webster Jr. (1758-1843) was a brilliant lexicographer (a person who compiles dictionaries) and was a man who taught generations of children how to spell.

George Merriam (1803-1880) was a publisher. With his brother Charles, he founded G & C Merriam Co., in 1828, and bought the rights to Webster’s famous compilations after his death.

The legacy of these individuals lives on as Merriam-Webster, Inc., considered America’s most trusted source for English word definitions, meanings, synonyms, word origins, and pronunciations.

The reason for the brief history lesson is simple. As a journalist, I am sometimes challenged by others on the words I use in articles or headlines. If I make an error on information (general typos notwithstanding), it is the policy of the Pioneer Review to run a correction.

Five days after we published “County employees rewarded with four-day holiday weekend,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Gary Evans read the following prepared statement at the board’s May 25 meeting, before directing his staff to email it to county department heads and all county employees:

“The intent of the Board’s decision to declare July 2, a county holiday was to acknowledge the countless hours and additional workload undertaken by Colusa County employees in response to the paralyzing requirement forced upon us. The extra holiday was a recognition and appreciation of this, not a reward. I hope you all enjoy the long weekend over the Fourth of July.”

Since the meeting was not a live broadcast, I looked around the room to the small gathering of unblinking county employees and knew what the chairman was addressing. I used the word “reward” in the body of my article about the county holiday – and in the headline.

After the meeting, I raced back to my office to reread my choice of words, check the entire story for factual errors, and consult with my dear friends, Merriam and Webster, to see if I needed to write a retraction.

This is how Merriam-Webster, Inc. defines reward:

“Noun: a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement. Use in a sentence: “the holiday (their words, not mine) was a reward for 40 years’ service with the company.”

Verb: to make a gift of something to (someone) in recognition of their services, efforts, or achievements. Use in a sentence: “the engineer who supervised the work was rewarded with a bonus.”

Synonyms: accolade, premium, bonus, compensation, award, honor, benefit, bounty. Similar to: remunerate, compensate, recognize, award, decorate.”

Therefore, recognition with payment to show appreciation for services rendered is a reward.

But are we just quibbling over semantics (the meaning of words) or is there more to the county’s public admonishment of this newspaper than meets the eye?

I cover the board of supervisors the same way I cover the city councils for Colusa and Williams. If the board is in agreement on an issue, I cover the issue, action, implications, etc. If there is disagreement among the voting members, I generally cover the reason for the division, who is in dissent of the majority, and context (especially on matters where controversy has previously been established) so the reader understands current events and how their elected representatives responded.

On the matter of the extra day off, there were two opinions. The majority of the board favored the $125,000 cost (the equivalent of one day’s wages for no work) given to county employees for rising to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The dissenting opinion was that such a reward (or whatever synonym you prefer) constituted either an unlawful or exorbitant gift of taxpayer funds.

My opinion doesn’t matter, but county officials should have just let the majority rule and wished everyone a safe and enjoyable holiday, rather than trying to write their own news to control public opinion. The criticism for the extra holiday can’t be any worse than buying a “muscle” car for non-law enforcement personnel or sending staff on unnecessary taxpayer-funded junkets to Las Vegas.

That, however, didn’t happen. Instead, an elected official chose to publicly and systematically discredit me and this newspaper by constructing a rebuttal that adds no clarity to the conversation. He then read it into the public record and had it circulated through the county’s entire organization by email.

I should not have to say this again – in an editorial – after the last time this happened. It is not the role of a free and independent press to carry the local government’s water…even if our government officials pursue our destruction to have unfettered access to public money without public scrutiny. I will not be bullied into sanitizing the decisions made by elected officials just so they won’t have to answer to them.

If the board’s goal was to just push that exhausting narrative that “public servants” deserve not only our praise and adoration, but additional payment for working through the challenges of a pandemic, which everyone else also had to work through, then the board may have done more harm than good.

By choosing to publicly redress their grievance with this newspaper over a word they didn’t like – and apparently don’t understand – the chairman changed the board’s originally stated reason for their May 11 decision, without putting it back on the agenda for discussion.

The Board of Supervisors originally affirmed the extra day off was awarded (a reward) to all employees for working hard during COVID-19 so the public would benefit from improved morale and greater productivity when the employees returned from a restful four-day holiday. (A typical tactic from a union playbook for more government perks: pay us more and we won’t bite the hand that feeds us.) But the county, to control the narrative, steered itself into a convoluted trap of its own making.

According to Merriam-Webster, the county’s subsequent statement is a deviation from what they said on May 11. Its literal translation means, “The Board’s intent is to admit to the existence of county employees having undocumented overtime because they were required not to move forward, while forced to do additional work. The holiday is compensation for our gratitude, not a reward. Have a nice weekend.”

And that benefits the public how?

You see, words matter. The board can’t change the narrative with hyperbolic nonsense…because they can’t change the dictionary meaning of the word reward.

Countless hours mean too many hours to count, and humans have been quantifying time since before Stonehenge. And I’m pretty sure the California Department of Labor requires it of employers.

Do our elected officials really expect the public to believe that every county employee worked “countless” hours for which they did not receive payment, including those who worked from home and used their extra COVID pay to self-quarantine at the coast?

I think people are more likely to believe that county employees, just like regular people, occasionally must rise to unique challenges in their jobs.

If the board is receiving criticism for their decision, it is because an informed public knows that blanket compensation as reward sets a precedent for future union demands – and influences other public agencies to make the same concessions for their employees.

What will be the reason for extended holidays when July 4 falls on a Tuesday in 2023 or when Christmas falls on Thursday in 2025? Climate change? Working while hot?

I will say this to our county officials again. The role of the newspaper is simple: to provide readers with information so they can make decisions on matters that affect their lives. That includes holding local government officials accountable so voters can discern whether their representatives are acting in their best interest – and sanction them appropriately in the next election if they do not.

Citizens can appreciate the fine work of public employees without having to worship the ground they walk on – or constantly lay more gold at their feet. Most citizens probably don’t care if they have the extra day off. They just want them to do the jobs they are paid to do, respect our rights and freedoms, fix our potholes, and spend our tax dollars responsibly.

If our elected officials can’t take the heat for their decisions, they need to jump from the fire. They also might want to curtail the hyperbole, use a dictionary to look up big words they don’t understand, and leave the news reporting to reliable sources.

I absolutely stand by my May 20 story, “County employees rewarded with four-day holiday weekend.”

Inserting a synonym for reward is just lipstick on a pig. 

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