What is the “Rashomon effect” and how does it relate to the City of Gonzales? I’m glad you asked. The term was coined in the 1970s and describes a literary device in which different characters describe past events from various perspectives; and who recount different versions of the same event. As I watched competing coverage of Gonzales’ latest city council meeting on the three Baton Rouge TV news channels, I was reminded of the 1950 Japanese cinematic classic, “Rashomon.”
In “Rashomon” director, Akira Kurosawa, tells the story of the murder/rape of a samurai and his wife. Four witnesses testify at the subsequent trial of the alleged murderer/rapist and they tell wildly different stories. There is an English-language remake of Kurosawa’s masterpiece entitled “The Outrage” for those who abhor subtitles. Baton Rouge-based media outlets employed the “Rashomon effect” in their coverage of Gonzales’ latest city council meeting. It probably wasn’t coordinated.
Channels 33 (WVLA), 9 (WAFB) and 2 (WBRZ) all brought their cameras to Gonzales City Hall on Monday, July 14, and they all conducted post-meeting interviews of Gonzales’ elected officials. But they told very different stories, none of which was all that accurate.
I didn’t get around to watching the broadcasts which I had recorded until Wednesday morning. Here’s what I saw.
Channel 33’s news anchor said the following in a piece that lasted 61 seconds:
“Gonzales is broke and tonight one council member proposed an amendment to cut the general budget down to just $50,000. It used to be $100,000.”
Should I, and my fellow citizens, be alarmed. This was the first I’d heard about my beloved city’s dire financial straits. It seemed that things were going so well, too. We just got a movie theater and a bowling alley, two things our citizens have wanted for as long as I can remember. What could have happened?
It was 5:30 am when I watched the Channel 33 version but I couldn’t wait. I called Mayor Barney Arceneaux because I wanted answers. Drat…straight to voicemail. Panic-stricken, I decided to pull out my copy of the most recently proposed General Fund budget.
Phhew! What a relief. It would seem that Gonzales enjoys a level of economic prosperity that it has never before experienced. I would hazard a guess that 99% of Louisiana’s municipalities aspire to be “broke” like the City of Gonzales.
And Gonzales enjoyed a $30 million fund balance only six short years ago. I know, the fund balance had decreased to around $12 million last year but $25 million in capital improvements were made without borrowing a single dime. Name another Louisiana municipality that can say the same.
As for the “general budget,” it was not amended down to $50,000 from a $100,000 starting point. Mayor Arceneaux’s originally proposed General Fund budget totaled $15,668,400. Three council members did amend funding within the budget for Ascension Economic Development Corp (AEDC) down to $25,000 in April. Arceneaux vetoed that amended budget in May.
He presented a new General Fund budget on June 23 which included $75,000 for AEDC. The same three Councilmen (Gary Lacombe, Timothy Vessel and Terance Irvin) reduced the allocation to $50,000.
“With this latest push a lot of city employees are angry because it means that many of them will not get raises,” Channel 33 reported.
True, employees are paid out of the General Fund and expected raises will not be forthcoming until the budget is adopted.
But, “Our employees understand that they’ll receive those raises” when the budget is passed, Mayor Arceneaux assured. And the raises will be retroactive to June 1 when the current fiscal year commenced. For the record, Barney Arceneaux also informed that Gonzales is not broke.
The Channel 33 anchor went on to add:
“One Councilman wants $30,000 of the proposed budget to go directly to the police and fire departments. But others, including the police chief and the mayor, just don’t think that’s enough.”
I’m baffled as to what the assertion even refers to. I wouldn’t know where to look to verify or refute the statement.
What a relief. I was curious, though. How had the other Capital City news outlets treated events in the Jambalaya Capital of the World?
Channel 9 devoted 40 seconds of its half-hour broadcast to the council meeting.
“Council members can’t decide how much they want to give Ascension Economic Development Corporation…The budget, already a month and a half overdue,” the news anchor declared. “Gonzales city leaders might try to pass a budget again at the next meeting in two weeks.”
Okay. Fair enough, but…No mention, at all, was made about the more controversial issue? They cut $110,000 from Chief Sherman Jackson’s police department funding in the Capital Outlay budget. Oh well, at least there were no outlandish inaccuracies.
Channel 9 made up in brevity what it lacked in thoroughness. Why even bother?
Channel 2 has devoted more time and effort to coverage of our city’s political scene. What did it have to report in its 2:11 segment?
Channel 2 featured an actual reporter who provided:
“Lawmakers were going back and forth over the budget in Gonzales. Tonight, a step forward, but it comes at the expense of the police department.”
The sticking point, Channel 2 reported, is an $800,000 road study that was added to the budget in April and subsequently vetoed by the mayor.
“There is no study now” and it was “not part of the discussion tonight.”
“The police and economic development funds were both amended and the council continues to disagree…Two amendments were passed by the same 3-2 vote that creates a divide among city leaders,” the reporter concluded, identifying Lacombe, Vessel and Irvin as the majority faction pitted against Councilmen Kenny Matassa and Kirk Boudreaux.
Channel 2 got it right but went on to air its post-meeting interview with Gary Lacombe about his pet project, the $800,000 I-10 service road.
“We’ve got some work to do with the mayor and he’s signaled to us that he’s wanting to do that. So we’re going to work with him,” Lacombe said.
So, Channel 2 concluded that:
“The road study isn’t off the table entirely. And Mayor Barney Arceneaux; still not sure what he’ll do.”
More accurately, Mayor Barney Arceneaux isn’t sure what you’re talking about.
The revelation that the mayor is negotiating with Lacombe, Vessel and/or Irvin over the service road came as a shock to me. So I contacted him and, as it turns out, it surprised the mayor, too.
“I’m not sure what in the heck that means,” Arceneaux said of Gary Lacombe’s comments. “That’s probably a ‘stand by and wait’ comment.”
Meaning, what do Gary Lacombe, Timothy Vessel and Terance Irvin have in store for the next council meeting? Will they amend the budgets which are scheduled for final vote? They’ve already done so on two occasions.
What about Baton Rouge’s print media? The Advocate ran its story under the headline:
“Gonzales road study dead, but amendments may keep budget controversy alive.”
The accurate conclusion lies somewhere in between what was reported by Channel 2 and The Advocate. They might have gotten it right if the Manship family still owned the newspaper.
Now, lest I be accused of unfair criticism, I empathize with any reporter attempting to get a straight answer from Gary Lacombe, Terance Irvin or Timothy Vessel. As for Councilman Vessel, if you can get any answer at all you’ve really accomplished something.
But the budget battle in Gonzales has been going on for four months now. It began when Lacombe, Irvin and Vessel failed to attend the March 20 working meeting to discuss the mayor’s newly crafted budget scheduled for introduction on April 14.
Four months would seem ample time to get the facts straight, at least some of them. On those rare occasions when the Baton Rouge stations deem Gonzales worthy of media attention, is that too much to expect?