Ink by the Teacup

Dodie Shallman had something to say about Cambridge's scandalous debt, beastly taxes, and the clowns who got the town into this mess. With the dirt-dishing Observer, the doyenne turned her crusade into news.

Dodie Shallman doesn't look like a bomb thrower. Settled into a booth at the Northern Lights Family Restaurant in Cambridge, a town of 5,400 a quick 40 miles north of downtown Minneapolis, what Shallman looks like is your grandmother dressed for church: a frosty-coiffed, seventysomething matron done up in a purple blazer over a paisley blouse, with a brooch pinned to her lapel just so. She orders coffee, a BLT, and a cup of clam chowder for lunch, and complains to the waitress that the cup, when it arrives, looks suspiciously like a bowl.

The Complaint--or to put it in more dignified terms, the Critique--is pure Shallman. Bombs, no, but for the past year she has been lobbing a small arsenal of inflammatory words into the heart of Cambridge, where she and her husband had been living for several years. Last December she bullied her way into Isanti County's fourth estate by launching the Cambridge Observer, a four-page, take-no-prisoners newspaper that has issued a series of sporadic editions and ticked off just about everyone it has set sights on--city council members, municipal bean counters, civic honchos, and pillars of the business community.

Shallman started the Observer in response to a refusal on the part of the two other local papers--the Star ("Since 1905 your primary source for community information") and the County News ("Your community newspaper since 1900")--to print letters she'd sent them. That, and she figured on influencing, to whatever small degree, the impending local elections--mainly for city council--which were held last month and which, alas, the Observer did not influence much at all. Still, what has come to be known as Cambridge's "alternative" (or in some quarters, even "underground") newspaper has struck nerves.

After the first issue, all hometown printers refused to produce the subsequent edition. So editor in chief Shallman and her band of volunteers--six, maybe seven folks at most, who together write, edit, design, and distribute the Observer--started making the two-hour trek up to Brainerd when press time rolled around. The paper sells few ads--not on principle, it seems, so much as because of a uniform refusal of the Cambridge business cartel to support the upstart; according to Shallman, "One businessman said, 'I like your paper, I read it from beginning to end, but if I put an ad in your paper I would be blacklisted and I wouldn't have any customers." Rather, it is paid for out of pocket by Shallman and her cohorts.

In the four issues published to date, the Observer has spent most of its ink disparaging council votes, carping about municipal policies, bemoaning the bureaucracy, caterwauling about budget decisions, roiling up conflict of interest questions, and lambasting the bulk of the sitting city council as "good ole boys." The latest edition was its largest, a full eight pages of newsprint, bolstered by a few campaign ads from Observer-endorsed candidates. It included everything from hard-news tidbits--one item noted that the Minnesota Taxpayers Association had ranked the city's property taxes the third highest in outstate Minnesota--to candidate responses to questions posed by a reporter (although the only hopefuls to respond also happened to be endorsed by the paper).

Critics of the gazette (and there are many) have dismissed it as an opinion-riddled tract that's loose with the facts, prone to specious judgment, and under the command of a scandalmongering quidnunc who couldn't tell scuttlebutt from true news if it came up and licked her. And that's the generous view. Mayoral candidate Bill Weinreich, for instance, sent out a mailing before the November 2 elections that included this dig: "The two legitimate newspapers in Cambridge have done a good job of the facts. Then we have the 'alternative newspaper' which creates more confusion and anger." Such an assessment bothers Shallman not a bit. A self-described independent who says she inherited her parents' interest in politics, she has taken a few writing courses at the local community college over the years, and has dabbled in writing nonfiction and poetry. "My pencil," she declares, "is never still."

 

A still Shallman pen would be a welcome irregularity for Assistant Isanti County Attorney Stoney Hiljus, who was appointed earlier this year to the city council and was up for election in November. The Observer's most recent issue, whose 3,500 copies were visited upon Cambridge the week before the election, featured a story (under the byline Catherine Williams) that asked voters to determine whether Hiljus's position constituted an ethical predicament, given that the County Attorney's Office, his day job, handles prosecution services for the city. Among the article's contentions was that "Mr. Hiljus has already had to abstain from several votes because he had a conflict of interest."

Hiljus promptly demanded a retraction, strenuously arguing that he had done no such thing. (A review by City Pages of council meeting minutes since Hiljus's appointment came up with not a single vote from which he'd abstained. Hiljus says he did decline appointment to the Isanti County Human Rights Commission because he believed that would create a conflict.) Ultimately, Hiljus prevailed over the Observer-endorsed candidate (a retired psychologist who makes a hobby of singing folk songs, including several about local politics, which are available on the cassette Cambridge Blues). Because the Observer hasn't had a fifth issue, Hiljus's lengthy letter of protest ran in both the Star and the County News, though not until the day after the elections.

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