This week, journalists all over the country are celebrating Sunshine Week, a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
You may not think this is an important issue, but having a transparent government is important on every level.
Here in Tipton County, the members of our news team attend public meetings where major decisions that affect you are made. Under Freedom of Information laws, we can make requests to inspect and obtain documents – such as tax forms and personnel files, meeting agendas and information related to decision-making – to help us in our ultimate duty as the government’s watchdogs.
Sometimes the access to this information exposes wrongdoing.
Three years ago, several new Mason aldermen were frustrated with the mayor and his wife, who was a municipal employee, because they were not given access to employee records. They were curious about the public works superintendent’s salary because they were told he was making quite a bit more than the small town’s other employees.
Doing our due diligence, we requested salary information for every Mason employee. The mayor’s wife begrudgingly handed it over, asking what we planned to do with it.
At the time, we just wanted to make sure they’d comply with a Freedom of Information Act request. If they didn’t, then we’d plan our next move, but when we saw the figures we knew something wasn’t right.
The original report seemed to indicate the superintendent was making a lower wage than the mayor’s wife, who was an employee in his department. We ran a story about this, not knowing we’d opened Pandora’s box.
That week, a utility clerk, whom we’d later come to understand was dating the superintendent, told us we had the figures incorrect. She let us know he was not only paid an hourly wage but a salary from two other departments.
It was at this point Brian Blackley, our now former publisher, and I realized something definitely wasn’t right.
At best, we had an erroneous report from a municipal employee. At worst, somebody was lying about the town’s finances or stealing from taxpayers.
From there, we requested W-2s and found the superintendent in a town of 1,000 people was not just making more than every town employee, he was, in fact, making more than the director of the public works department for the entire county.
What followed were three dozen resignations, an investigation by the district attorney’s office and the state comptroller, the superintendent’s indictment for theft and official misconduct related to unauthorized overtime, termination of several contracted employees, suspicions of theft by other employees and a complete upheaval for the board and the town’s finances.
Thanks to their shoddy bookkeeping, more indictments could not follow his.
Three years later, almost everyone on the board is new, there are new department heads, new employees, new policies and procedures in place to keep employees honest and restore the community’s faith in its government. They are trying to rebuild their reputation and be as transparent as they know how to be.
All of this resulted from one simple request for records, which is the public’s right, and the media’s right, thanks to Sunshine Laws.
Open government is important, and not just on the federal or state level. Participation in local government is, in the words of Pam Fine, Knight Chair for News, Leadership and Community, the greatest ammunition we have against government secrecy.
Let the Town of Mason’s example be a reminder that one request can be a game-changer.