Peering into shadows
of government secrecy
Mass resignations among Marion, Peabody, and county law enforcement. Firings in Marion’s school district and city administration. County services, from roads to ambulances, that don’t seem to live up to their name. Efforts to take away voters’ rights. Taxes and debt that mount like snow in arctic blizzards. Candidates who seem to discuss only irrelevant, hot-button topics like transgendered athletes and border and election security.
Things are messed up — not just in Topeka and Washington, but right here in River City and elsewhere in Marion County.
The question is why. One answer, according to academics specializing in such pontification, is that the public simply isn’t as involved as it should be in real issues government deals with.
That’s one reason why we as a newspaper constantly object when public meetings are conducted in secret, outside laws that allow secrecy only for very specific purposes and only in very specific ways that give the public as much information as possible about what is being discussed.
Secrecy surrounding the firing of Marion’s city administrator and the resignations of three top city officials created all manner of misinformation among the public, fostering an attitude that, if no one can control what goes on, why even bother trying?
A rampant rumor — bolstered by misleading comments from some elected officials — is that a key reason for firing Marion’s city administrator was that he showed a pornographic video to a city employee.
We’ve obtained a copy of the image in question. It wasn’t a video. And it wasn’t pornographic. To be sure, it isn’t something anyone would want to hang in a kindergarten or Sunday school classroom. But it also wasn’t something that would boost a movie’s rating from G to even PG. You can see the same sort of thing on early-evening sitcoms and in catalogs received in the mail.
The true nature of the image not only wasn’t explained to the general public. It also was withheld, along with other complaints, from responsible city council members.
Such tight reins that some officials place on the flow of information is in no small way responsible for embarrassing mistakes such as Marion being duped — until voters finally corrected the situation— into falling for a bond company’s attempt to write voters out of the process of approving borrowing.
Will taxpayers in the Marion and Florence school district ever know why they had to spend thousands of dollars to get rid of a superintendent? Will taxpayers in Marion ever know why they are poised to have to do the same with a city administrator?
These are big issues. But keeping information from the public has impact on everyday issues as well.
Time was, every bill local governments paid had to be published so citizens could see exactly where their money was being spent.
Did bureaucrats and recipients of government largess like it? Of course not. But despite what some politicians might think, citizens who looked at such lists were neither dummies nor idle gossips. Many times they caught and questioned things that should have been caught and questioned, contributing to good government and avoiding the recent trend of government seeming beyond the control not only of voters but also of elected officials.
We can’t solve this with just one dose of disinfecting sunshine on government operations, but we can offer an example of the types of questions people might raise in a more open system of government.
Last Friday, county commissioners approved without discussion page after page of what they call warrants — basically, bills the county pays. A few of the commissioners might actually have looked at the bills, but none of them asked any questions — at least during the portion of deliberations that occurred in public.
Some of the warrants seemed to merit at least a raised eyebrow. Perhaps they were perfectly justified. Perhaps they weren’t. Wouldn’t it be nice to know for sure?
For example, why does district court need a $444.67 ice maker? All of us know the criminal justice system has its problems, but are ice cubes the answer?
Do courthouse offices really need to spend $451.48 a month on coffee? Just $32.34 of that was for the county clerk’s office, which often provides coffee to visitors. Dispatchers spent a whopping $338.21 on coffee (plus some for Clorox, which we hope wasn’t mixed with the coffee).
Dispatching is a tough and underappreciated job, but close to $11 a day in coffee seems a bit much. Would the county be better served by asking workers to bring a thermos and providing free training instead of free caffeine?
The ambulance service bought $66.20 in coffee (plus some Gain detergent). The jail bought $14.73 in coffee and cocoa. Perhaps what inmates need to further their rehabilitation is a heartwarming cup of cocoa each morning.
At least the people arresting them will be nattily attired. The sheriff’s department spent $965.83 on 22 shirts and added $155.40 to embroider a few of them. The jail spent $352.38 for what were described as thermal shirts, though inmates rarely seem to go outside, and the clerk’s office spent $135.14 on election shirts.
In private offices, employees often bring treats to share at Christmas. In the courthouse, taxpayers do. Bills approved Friday included $109.99 for a Christmas dinner set, $49.20 for Christmas drinks, $39.25 for Christmas supplies in one office, $43.40 in Christmas supplies in another, and $100 for Christmas “GC,” whatever that might be (perhaps gift certificate).
All this was in addition to $128.82 for “employee pop” for the courthouse and $33.27 in “drinks” (hopefully non-alcoholic) for road and bridges workers, who apparently needed to wet their whistles to talk on $2,505.08 in cell phone services they received.
Planning commissioners, unlike most appointed officials, appear to receive mileage to attend meetings. Drug-sniffing dogs need $81.84 a month in food. Emergency management needed $107.26 for note cards. The county attorney spent $250 to transport a dead body. The jail spent $1,327.90 for outside firms to transport inmates. The deeds office needed $1,788.75 for five new chairs, and the commissioners, who constantly are rearranging their meeting room, spent $498.11 on a new table.
All of these, of course, are nickel-and-dime items compared to the $7,921.20 spent on 19 different calls for computer support services and to the whopping $324,193.71 spent on 86 orders for road rock and $154,103.47 spent on 99 bills for transporting that rock — both of which seem odd purchases in an icy, weight-adding month like December.
We imagine there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for most if not all of these purchases. What would help bring citizens back into our political system would be sufficient openness to allow such things to be questioned routinely by the public, not just by newspapers continually branded as negative for doing so.
We’re reminded of the last time we went through county warrants and found numerous offices paying each month for bottled water. We reported it. This month, we note there no longer are any such charges.
Putting a stopper in the flow of bottled water in the majority of county offices probably didn’t shave more than a penny or two off tax bills, but being involved enough to question spending is a first step toward making government less dysfunctional for both officials and taxpayers.
— ERIC MEYER