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  • Last modified 8 days ago (Oct. 11, 2018)

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Is it too late to have faith in government?

As if Marion County hadn’t been disappointed enough about economic development comes the news this past week that the county’s former development director is accused of misusing nearly $47,000.

No amount of feel-good ads and generic platitudes about supposed opportunities can erase the ugly truth that one of the biggest challenges the county faces is not just a largely unskilled work force and decaying infrastructure but government that seems hopelessly mired between rosy ineptitude and dark shadows of fraud.

Exactly how we the taxpayers allegedly were defrauded — something that each of us has a compelling need and right to know — remains locked up in secret documents, hidden in the courthouse.

In many, if not most other states, details of what is thought to have happened automatically are released whenever charges are filed. Here, they remain secret unless someone does as we did last week and petitions the justice system to release so-called probable cause affidavits.

We urge our elected judges and prosecutors, who can stand in the way of expedited release of details in this case, not to try to run out the clock on how long they can delay and instead order the documents’ prompt release, with as little censoring as possible.

At stake is not merely the technical functioning of the criminal justice system in one particular case. The victims are the citizens of Marion County. And the justice system’s No. 1 priority is to provide information that either reassures them that their government is capable of taking care of their money or points to leaks that need to be plugged so faith in government can be restored.

We also call upon our elected state representatives and senator to pause from their ranting about hot-button issues and political infighting long enough to change Kansas’ antiquated (though recently amended) law and make probable cause affidavits immediately releasable unless someone in the justice system can offer compelling evidence why they should not be.

The burden should not be on the press and public to prove that the government must give up its secrets. It should be on government to prove that its secrets need to be kept. If lawmakers believe otherwise and aren’t actively working to change the situation, voters need to demand an explanation from them.

This newspaper has long criticized how Marion County approves employee purchases. A dizzying array of bills to be paid is presented each month to county commissioners, who often can’t tell from the single-line listings what the bills are for. A few minutes later, tens of thousands of dollars in expenditures are approved, often without a single question.

When we examined a couple of month’s worth of bills for a series of editorials several months ago, we uncovered many questionable bills — including an unusually large number from a handful of county employees, one of them being the person who now stands accused.

Since then, we’ve noticed that the disinfectant of public attention seems to have cut down on the number of questionable charges, but we have even less time and access to check such things each month than do the elected officials who plow through them as unthinkingly as they do when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

At least we still have multiple full-time reporters, based in the county, whose task it is to serve as public watchdogs. The sad truth is we’re the only news organization that still does, and our ability to continue to do so depends on loyal customers continuing to subscribe and advertise with us rather than competitors who have cut their staffing to the bone.

Time was, government trusted the public to help monitor its spending. Each month, governmental units were required to publish lists of all bills paid and checks written. Not everyone read the lists, of course, but the mere thought that some citizen might question a bill helped keep abuse in check.

Now, to save money, government no longer publishes such lists and instead spends far more than it ever did on publishing them to hire consultants to tell them, despite all obvious logic, that the county employees who pushed for the consultants to be hired are underpaid.

Whenever a commissioner begins to question individual items of spending, an auditor — hired, again, for big bucks — argues that they are wasting effort because all the misspent money won’t add up to a single mill on tax bills.

It’s an argument reminiscent of the old Washington mantra — “a billion here, a billion there” — without the rejoinder, “pretty soon it adds up to real money.”

It’s encouraging that a case like this has been brought — assuming it is not motivated by personal animus, as some recent government actions have been.

What government truly needs is a healthy dose of public scrutiny and accountability. And that will happen only when the victims — we, the people — demand our rights.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Oct. 11, 2018

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