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  • Last modified 75 days ago (Aug. 8, 2019)

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Are you informed or indoctrinated?

Throughout the century and a half in which this newspaper, the second oldest business in town, has served as an independent community watchdog, shedding light on things happening in shadowy places, we’ve had plenty of competitors — not just out-of-town ones, but papers based right here in River City, too.

The Times, the Scimitar, the Headlight, and the Review are just a few of the papers that eventually were absorbed into the paper you now hold. Others, like the Democrat, Independent, Anzeiger and others, folded — and not in the way newspapers do to fit into mailboxes.

Now, it seems, Marion has yet another local newspaper, complete with opinionated editorials that take sides on local political issues. The difference this time is that we taxpayers are paying for the new newspaper, whether we want it or not.

The latest issue of something called Marion Government and Public Works Update, printed and mailed at taxpayer expense with utility bills, includes an unsigned editorial, not labeled as such, that attempts to make the case for an issue being hotly debated.

The question is whether certain city employees should be offered contracts that prevent newly elected officials from firing them and guarantee big buyouts if they are fired.

We’re not sure who wrote the editorial. We have a sneaking suspicion it was one of the very employees who would benefit from such a contract. Whatever the case, it’s clear from how the editorial is phrased that the motivation for the contracts is to ensure that voters have only limited power to change the course of city government when they go to the polls.

“As we move to elections, we could have 60% of the elected officials in new roles,” the unsigned editorial states as a key reason for the proposed contracts.

We’re forced to wonder, if these contracts would be such great things, why did both the mayor and the city administrator object when we reported that they were being discussed and when we attempted to offer details of what was being proposed?

If it’s such a great idea to make sure newly elected officials don’t really have it within their power to respond immediately to the will of the voters and change the direction of government, why angrily denounce us for spilling the beans?

As an aside, we should mention that we didn’t get the proposed contracts from a current city council member, whom the mayor accused of leaking them to us. We got them from other sources. No Deep Throat was needed. Under law, such documents became public the instant anyone discussed them in an open meeting.

We sympathize with our bureaucrats’ concern about the need for continuity in key areas. Gone are the days of patronage jobs, in which everyone down to garbage collectors and letter carriers were fired whenever an administration changed at the top.

Key positions, however, are supposed to change when elections occur. Imagine the delight President Obama would have had if he had been able to sign whatever top official was in charge of Obamacare to a contract that prevented President Trump from changing directions. Or imagine the delight President Trump would feel if he could sign to a long-term contract, extending well past the end of his term, for whoever it is that he has in charge of his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

If the city really were worried about continuity, perhaps the first person offered a contract should have been the police chief. He is, after all, not just an employee but a required municipal officer.

He doesn’t have a contract, though some of his predecessors did. A contract for him wasn’t among those proposed. Perhaps that’s testament to the fact that the current occupant of that position appears to be doing a great job and there’s a better chance voters would want to honor than to oust him.

The taxpayer-funded editorial, printed in full color at a cost of cost to $1 per copy, professes that state statutes call for three required officers: city clerk, city treasurer, and city marshal, which the editorial misspells as “marshall.” Either way, the marshal or marshall is now the police chief, so we might have expected to see a contract for him.

In fact, KSA 14-1501 calls for more than just three municipal officers. It also requires a city attorney, a municipal judge, and a fire chief, two of whom would have been offered contracts.

It also says that all of them serve for two-year terms and that their salaries are to be fixed by ordinance, with maximum earnings not exceeding the minimum by more than 25%.

KSA 14-1503 provides that they may be fired by majority vote of the council but that if they are — or if any resignations occur — new appointments are made only for the unexpired portion of the original two-year term.

Since all these positions originally were filled as the first order of business when a new council was seated, extending anyone a contract that leapfrogs over an election would require not only an ordinance creating the contract but also probably a charter ordinance changing the appointment time and eliminating a ban on golden parachutes.

It’s one thing for bureaucrats to worry what might happen if a new council fired them — though we still say the best way to combat that fear is for each of them to do his or her job well. It’s another altogether to take taxpayer money to argue the issue anonymously.

Far too much goes on in city hall outside of public inspection and control. Whether it has to do with billing — then not billing — to dispose of construction waste or trying to control what voters are allowed to change in elections, it’s our job to try to shed light wherever shadows are cast.

Agree or disagree, we want to give you all sides of an issue. We’ll never take taxpayer money to present only one anonymous view. That isn’t the role we’ve tried to play for the last century and a half.

But who knows? Maybe that’s what democracy is coming to — “educating” the public in the manner of George Orwell’s Big Brother.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Aug. 8, 2019

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