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The dangers of being stranded in a news 'desert'

While we lament yet another week of raging at the dying of the fight by tilting-at-windmills commissioner “Dawn Quixote,” otherwise known as Dianne Novak, we’re heartened that another public official has refused to go gentle into the good night of public service.

Rather than pandering to public passions about wind farms, slippery roads, and Christmas bonuses, public service often means questioning what bureaucrats gloss over in their unceasing attempts to transform discussions into rubber-stamping marathons.

Agendas for public meetings are like TV commercials that promise $0 in exchange for something only to briefly flash masses of unreadable tiny type imposing conditions as unlikely to be met as any of us are to throw touchdown passes in the NFL.

The devil truly is in the details, and in public meetings, the main hiding place for details is the consent agenda and its accompanying list of bills bureaucrats want to have paid.

Years ago, legislators and bureaucrats decided to save money — and avoid public oversight — by no longer publishing such lists as legal notices. Since then, thousands upon thousands of dollars have slipped through unchallenged.

Once in a while, however, a dutiful elected official will actually question something that looks out of the ordinary.

Often, the official involved is someone like eagle-eyed Marion city council member Jerry Kline, whom other elected officials have tried to marginalize as not going with the flow of rubber-stamping.

This week, Jerry spotted something we also noticed in the 63-page mass of legalese supplied to Marion council members: $941.44 for car washes.

It turns out, according to police chief Clinton Jeffrey, to have been a bill for 1½ years of car washes for city police vehicles. Regardless, it was heartening to see that the unexplained reference actually was questioned.

We have questions about other city purchases on the list:

— $1,036.21 a month for 34 cell phones plus $74.49 for AT&T service at a water tower and $36.65 for an Eagle phone at an undisclosed location.

— $300.75 for four T-shirts, 12 sweatshirts, and eight fleece hoodies.

— $180.09 for what seems to be life insurance for an elected council member.

— $87.72 for gas and $76.85 for power and water at the county, not city, ambulance barn.

— $1,005.00 for eight basketball referees on Dec. 7, a date that apparently shall live in free-throw infamy.

— $3,208.75 for computer support services, including what seemed to be some trivial matters like $42.50 to “modify DNS to add CNAME,” which to those not literate in such things is a 15-second operation; $255.00 to “export data from Roger”; various services labeled as “modify DMZ,” a reference to something that probably shouldn’t exist in networks except for gaming; and $63.75 to “add port forwarding,” another 15-second operation.

— A $1,020 charge described only as “government-labor” at an equipment repair business.

Most if not all of these are probably quite legitimate, like the car washes kind-hearted but ever-diligent Jerry noticed.

Our reporters will be checking on them in coming days just to make sure. Asking questions is what we do — not as an exercise in negativity but as a time-honored necessity that makes democracy stronger.

A letter this week from longtime local firebrand Harry Bennett, now living in ultra-liberal Madison, Wisconsin, reminds us:

“We have entered an era of almost prideful ignorance, and that is a huge threat to democracy. I would have found it difficult to live in Marion without the local paper as a test of what I thought I knew from the street talk and gossip.”

Bennett went on to lament how declining local retail, increasing reliance on social media that avoid challenging viewpoints, and competition from “free” information sources not worth what you pay for them have resulted in many areas of the country becoming “news deserts,” with the willingness of subscribers like you to pay for news they receive offering the only solution.

“After all, it’s the news,” Harry writes, “and everyone should have an opinion. Hopefully it is an informed one.”

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Dec. 19, 2019

 

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