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With 1st pick in draft, let’s choose openness

Marion and Marion County seem to be going through employees faster than NFL teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

Some have left for incompetence, like quarterbacks who throw too many interceptions. Some have left for transgressions, like players who get caught up in drugs or violence. Others have left for reasons not so clear — micromanagement by elected officials, sabotage or refusal to change by subordinates. These officials may emerge someday, as Andy Reid did in Kansas City after being fired in Philadelphia, as huge successes in their next endeavors.

The latest to go, Byron McDonald, didn’t make it through his first two weeks on patrol as a sheriff’s deputy.

His hiring might have been a gamble to start with. He previously had been accused of domestic battery and, though acquitted, had a long history of being targeted in civil suits. But he’s hardly the first to leave.

We’ve had an ambulance director, Curt Hasart, who left in the face of losing his license for failing to disclose violent run-ins with the law.

We’ve had another deputy, Joel Womochil, who since leaving was jailed on suspicion of encouraging child pornography.

We’ve had an illegally raiding police chief, Gideon Cody, who was hired despite facing demotion in his previous position and a torrent of complaints from former co-workers — complaints that elected officials were adamant in not wanting to hear about.

In recent months, Marion has had more city administrators than some last-place NFL teams have had starting quarterbacks, even though one, Mark Skiles, was known to have a record of leaving early to collect generous severance packages.

The structure of the county’s road and bridges department has seemed as mercurial as whatever organizational and depth charts Jerry Jones might create for the Dallas Cowboys.

The latest firing is both a credit and a shame.

Though it’s unclear why Sheriff Jeff Soyez hired him in the first place, Soyez promptly fired his newest deputy after learning the deputy had been involved in a domestic disturbance over the weekend.

As praiseworthy as Soyez’s ultimate prompt action might have been, it’s unclear why County Attorney Joel Ensey and District Judge Susan Robson were equally in a rush to dismiss domestic battery charges that would have disqualified McDonald from seeking a law enforcement position elsewhere in the state.

Almost as troubling is that very little of this would have made its way to the public if the Record hadn’t started asking questions after it discovered that a person named by Hillsboro police as being arrested never appeared as being booked into county jail.

After getting the runaround from McPherson County, where the now former deputy ended up being jailed, we eventually learned more or less what was going on — mainly because Hillsboro police, to their credit, provided enough bread crumbs of public information to lead us to the story.

The weekly report we routinely receive from them is a more thorough attempt at transparency than a report that former Marion chief Gideon Cody refused to provide during his tenure here.

The report didn’t disclose that McDonald was a deputy or that a veritable troop of law enforcement officers had descended on his home after a domestic disturbance was reported there. But it provided the only shreds of timely public evidence that something had happened. The rest we had to dig to get, but we won’t complain about that. That’s our job. And the Hillsboro police did theirs. That’s the way things are supposed to work in a democracy.

There will be some, of course, who think we shouldn’t have done our digging. They would prefer to live in the black-and-white world of “Pleasantville,” but there’s a reason embarrassing private matters sometimes need to be brought to public attention.

Gruesome accidents often are reported not to wallow in tragedy but to save lives by suggesting how they could have been avoided.

In the case of public safety firings, the public needs to be aware of a need for greater sharing of information about the backgrounds of people being considered for such positions.

And the community needs to know the consequences of such actions. Did you know, for example, that no Marion police officers were on duty last weekend? The county sheriff’s department, itself short-staffed, had to fill in because of vacancies on the Marion police force and requirements that unlicensed trainees cannot work as officers during their training periods.

Losing an officer has ripple effects throughout our community, and the public needs to know — just as it needs to know the whole story around many other issues.

Marion’s interim chief, Zach Hudlin, is a really nice guy. We like him. And he cooperates with us in ways some predecessors never did. But he also is the officer who pretty well botched investigation of a tragic ATV accident a few summers ago and who was captured on body cam video clearly overstepping the bounds, even of an illegal search warrant, in pointing out to Cody a reporter’s file about the chief’s alleged misdeeds.

Does that mean he shouldn’t be permanent chief? That’s a question the public will have to decide, but it needs to have all information, not just some, to make an informed decision.

The same goes for fire investigator Chris Mercer, who clearly stretched the truth in his after-action report on the newspaper raid. Or Ensey and Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, who basically failed to do their jobs in reviewing warrant applications for that raid but now are considered immune from consequences of that.

We’re encouraged that, to date, Marion seems to be proceeding in a more open and honest manner. So far as we know, candidates for city administrator and police chief aren’t being taken aside and privately told, as previous ones were, how terrible we at the newspaper are. That sort of behavior is best left to high school cliques like those in “Mean Girls.”

Rather than hiding behind closed doors, as everyone else seems to do, the city also has been willing to talk to job applicants in open public sessions, as Hillsboro did in selecting its school superintendent.

There’s no reason Marion and Marion County can’t get beyond recent challenges and make their equivalents of Super Bowl runs. But that can happen only if the public persists in wanting to know all the facts and demanding that government that spends more and more of their money and controls more and more of their lives should be open and accountable — and not become government of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats, and for the bureaucrats.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Feb. 1, 2024

 

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