A trip down the river

The first call came from a person in the know.

The report, incendiary if we’re being diplomatic, indicated that a person or people affiliated with a certain local conservation group were so incensed by LEO’s cover story last week that they’d begun pulling issues out of racks and hoarding them from the reading public.

Now they’re threatening to sue LEO if we tell the story.

Tsk, tsk, River Fields.

Steve Shaw’s expansive cover story, “Burned Bridge,” in the Nov. 11 issue, detailed the decline of the once-proud organization, from a nationally renowned conservation group to a one-issue monolith concerned with the affairs of its most financially endowed members. The organization has become a litigious nightmare for the city, holding up both the Harrods Creek Bridge widening project and the Ohio River Bridges Project with lawsuits that can, if we’re being diplomatic, be seen as NIMBY-ism, or the idea that major projects belong in someone else’s backyard.

Simply put, the story posed the question: Has River Fields lost its vision?

Judging by the overwhelming response we received, the answer is Yes.

Shaw’s angle was to first identify the beating River Fields has taken in the public-relations arena of late, and then to assess that as a measure of the public’s tolerance of the group’s current agenda. Along with other sources, Shaw got Lee Cochran — River Fields’ first director and daughter of its founder — to speak candidly on the record about the group’s opposition to an East End Bridge, which she believes represents, in a larger sense, an abdication of River Fields’ founding mission. After all, how much preservation of the Ohio River and its environs would River Fields’ prerogative — another downtown bridge and a massive expansion of Spaghetti Junction — accomplish?

On the flip side, Shaw sat down for an extensive interview with River Fields attorney Bob Griffith. His points of view — on everything from the bridges to public criticism of the group — were detailed throughout the story. He even talked about the River Fields approach to acrimony: stay above the fray.

Yet, if we are to believe our own eyes and people in the know, somebody associated with River Fields has skin so thin you can see their guts (or lack thereof).

The first report alleging River Fields’ officious behavior arrived early Thursday. Upon hearing of it, News Editor Sarah Kelley and I headed toward the river to search for proof. We discovered several empty streetboxes near the group’s headquarters, an unusual thing for a Thursday. We checked with nearby businesses and listened to reports that LEOs had been disappearing at an alarming rate.

Finally, we walked into River Fields’ second-floor office at 643 W. Main St. and asked if they’d been stealing our magazines. If this was happening, we reasoned, it’s better to talk face-to-face than risk muddying things over the phone or e-mail.

We got a pair of denials, to be sure. One even included the claim that River Fields’ “enemies” were perhaps behind the theft.

We did not find a stack of vanished LEOs inside the River Fields office. Perhaps that’s a good thing: What should we make of the city’s largest conservation group stealing free weeklies off the street to dampen the impact of a critical story? For all the group’s carping about free speech, who could imagine one of their own might stamp out someone else’s rights?

And then we got the letter.

After our visit to the group’s office, our publisher, Pam Brooks, sent a letter to River Fields asking that if they had been stealing LEOs to please stop. Tuesday morning we received a response from Griffith, the group’s attorney, threatening a lawsuit if we published any story about the alleged theft. The letter also demanded to know the source(s) behind the allegations of theft, as well as other internal LEO information.

Laughable, if it weren’t such a clear indication of the way River Fields likes to play in this community: intimidate and shutter, squash your critics, complain about your plot and bring in the lawyer to defend it.

River Fields supports a major expansion of downtown road infrastructure that would dramatically alter one of the most precious gifts of the river: its waterfront. The group is serving not the majority of Louisvillians but a few interested parties.

And again, they’re trying to quash something they don’t like with the threat of a lawsuit.

How unfortunate, if we’re being diplomatic.