"I don't want to tell you my name."

OK ...

When a phone conversation starts this way, I'm probably not typing notes during the conversation. Which is odd. My natural reaction to talking to someone on the phone is to start writing it all down. 

The Wise Woman calls, I write it down. Cheese. Butter. Fruit, but not bananas because the last batch went bad before anyone ate them. Creamer for coffee. Lunch meat. Salad stuff (a vague entry, but I can crack that code). Bacon. 

So, when a mysterious woman called late last week, my fingers rested on the keyboard, not moving. 

That is until her tale turned to small town (school district, really) intrigue. In the middle of it all, she claimed, was an unscrupulous newspaper publisher. 

Okay, now I was listening. 

Not so much, but ...

Long story short, I don't think you can call the newspaper publisher in question unscrupulous or journalistically unethical or nefarious. He's just a guy who is reporting things that some people disagree with. Vehemently. 

Yeah, join the club on that one. We've got T-shirts. 

But when I hear about someone in a position of power — and make no mistake, the publisher of a community newspaper is in a powerful position within that community – abusing that power, I pay attention. 

I listened to the woman's story. Much of it was business as usual in the newspaper business, but it did lead me to a larger story. There is a group (I assume, entirely) in Zumbrota that is opposed to the local school bond referendum. They seem to want the district moved entirely to Zumbrota, cutting Mazeppa out of the equation in the Zumbrota-Mazeppa School District. 

Where's H.R. Halderman now?

What I found really interesting is the length to which people did not want to go on the record. My mystery caller? She did that "star-69 thing" so her name wouldn't pop up on my caller ID. 

I didn't even know that was a thing anymore. Frankly, I was both amused and a bit bemused by her efforts. At one point, the whole thing felt like I was talking to Hal Holbrook in a D.C. parking garage in the dark. (It's a movie reference. Look it up, Millennials.)

And she wasn't the only one. 

When it comes to school bond referendums, school district superintendents are limited in what they are allowed to say publicly. So, Z-M Superintendent Mike Harvey suggested I contact a man named Rob Brown of Nexus Solutions — the district's consultant in the referendum process — to get any names of people who were on the Vote Yes Committee supporting the referendum. 

I called Brown and we also exchanged some emails. In one, he told me that four of the five people he contacted on the Vote Yes Committee "all are concerned about retaliation; four of five declined to talk with you."

One brave soul decided to be interviewed, but for the story I got all I needed from other sources, so I let him off the hook. 

Follow the ... money?

Brown also sent me emails he'd collected from Vote No folks, and newspaper articles from the aforementioned community newspaper. We talked about some of the conspiracy theories that were floating out there around the bond referendum. 

One concern from my mystery caller was that the Vote No group — and I'm dead serious here — broke campaign finance laws by raising and/or spending more than $750 on their campaign, but not reporting it to the election supervisor. 

For the record, I saw zero evidence of that, and I'd guess the money spent by the Vote No crowd was below the threshold. 

All The publisher's men

Why do I find this so fascinating? 

Look, I am never going to stumble across a "Watergate" story in my journalism career. Those stories are few and far between, and those few that do happen are probably in Washington, D.C., not Zumbrota. 

But the basics of Watergate are all part of journalism to this day. Follow the money. Find out who benefits and how. What are people's motivations for doing what they do?

Those questions apply just about everywhere, and rarely does it lead to nefarious dealings. More often than not, it's just a difference of opinion or goals of two groups that are at cross purposes. 

I could tell you more, but it seems there's an 18-1/2-minute gap in my notes. Hmm ...

Regional Reporter Brian Todd covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties along with some cities in Olmsted County. In the After Deadline column every Thursday, he shares behind-the-scenes tales from the newsroom.

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