“Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the rather hyperbolic motto of the Washington Post. It’s a motto that suggests that, but for the beacon of light that is the Washington Post, our free nation would disappear. It also smacks of pretension and a little bit of desperation from a major newspaper that has played a critical role in undermining the trust the American public had traditionally held in a free press.
If that light the press proposes to shine is only showing a part of the story, or presenting stories only in a “certain light,” it’s really the other side of the story that is dying in darkness.
Many folks of my generation grew up with the belief that the news media was fair and objective. That myth was shattered by the rise of alternate free news sources, like talk radio and the internet. As the public grew increasingly used to getting their news for free, traditional print media, the home for in-depth investigative reporting and local beat reporting for school boards and municipalities, began to sink. And while more and more people turn to news sources to present only the stories they want they way they want to see them, our country becomes more and more tribal in nature. The trust the American public placed in the fourth estate’s claims of objectivity has been eroded, probably irrevocably.
While many understandably applaud the demise of the media, the crumbling of that public trust, and the overall declining appearance of straight reporting due to the fiscal decline of these organizations, has truly hurt us, especially on the local level.
I often get asked why I don’t write about national politics. Simple: Because we have more than enough people contributing to the din that is the national political landscape.
All politics is local, and I believe that local politics is more important, more immediate and has the most impact on the voter. I’m not talking about Republican versus Democrat partisanship here, which only plays a small role in your local elections. I’m talking about your schools, your roads, your safety, your community and your taxes. There are plenty of people opining on National issues. Who is talking about Upper Providence? Who is talking about Montgomery County? Who is talking about how state issues affect us locally?
The answer is, unfortunately, not too many people. And there are fewer every day
Back in May, the Philadelphia Inquirer sounded the death knell on Montco’s main local papers, The Times Herald, the Mercury and the Reporter, all owned by Digital First Media. For some reason, the Inquirer interviewed Montgomery County Commissioner, Val Arkoosh, about this issue. And while I rarely ever agree with Arkoosh, at least on this issue, she’s spot on:
“How do citizens know who to vote for unless they take it upon themselves to do a substantial amount of their own research? There is virtually no coverage of school board meetings anymore. If you don’t have the time to watch the stream [of the school board meetings], how do you know what’s going on?”
Indeed, how does anyone know what your local government is doing? What are your local elected officials doing for your community with your tax dollars and who is holding them accountable?
Who’s minding the store?
The whole article is worth a read (HERE), but the salient points are below:
Years of cost cuts at Digital First Media, the nation’s No. 3 newspaper chain with 48 million readers, are devastating newsrooms and fomenting employee dissent even as the hedge fund-controlled Digital First makes huge profits on beaten-down papers, where some reporters earn less than $30,000 a year.
Reporting and editing staffs at papers such as the Mercury have been decimated, newspaper buildings sold off for millions of dollars, and editing and writing functions centralized in distant hubs.
Experts now warn of “ghost papers” and a “turn-the-lights-out scenario” for many Digital First publications, even in well-off suburbs in Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties. As the company extracts profits from its newspapers it also fails to transform them into viable media assets for the digital age — despite its name.
The days of a regular reporter covering a “beat” of municipal and school board meetings disappeared long before this. In 2013, during the controversy surrounding the sale of Parkhouse, the Montgomery County-owned home for the aged and its surrounding 220 acres, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, I had to beg the editor of the local paper to please, send someone to provide coverage of our meetings.
In recent weeks, we’ve been inundated with articles about the missing millions in the Philadelphia budget. But consider this: the machinations that allowed the City of Philadelphia to “lose” $33 million dollars have been in place for years. Philadelphia is a major metropolitan area with two major newspapers, four national network affiliates and no shortage of alternative media coverage. Yet this problem went unnoticed for years until another elected official, City Councilman Alan Domb, brought attention to it.
Sure, there are stories about local political corruption outside of Philadelphia. But rarely, if ever, are these stories the result of a curious media with a vibrant investigative department (indeed, the local media tend to label police departments “uncooperative” if they don’t regularly provide them with ready made “police blotter” content). Most of these issues are covered because the reporter was given a tip or a newspaper was provided with a press release.
And the most likely source of that information was another politician with an agenda. That agenda may have been for their own advancement, for political payback, the public good, or some combination of the three, but rest assured: that source benefitted from the public airing of the story, or from the way the story was told in the press. Powerful local politicians often cultivate effective relationships with local news reporters and editors, and the smart ones do it under the guise of friendship, over golf, cigars and beers with promises of that all-important, exclusive scoop. Then that politician can control not only how the news is presented, but which news gets presented and which dies in the darkness.
And believe me, that happens far more than you’d like to think.
Here’s a fun story that’s been unfolding for several years. Taxpayers were defrauded of millions of dollars in a PennDOT/contractor scam and charges were brought against the latest official early last month. Inquirer again:
A former PennDOT official has been accused of accepting payments from an unnamed private contractor in exchange for paying the contractor with public money “even when the contractor did not perform the work,” state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement today.
The state charged Nicholas Martino with one count of “conflict of interest – restricted activities,” a felony. Martino, 53, who turned himself in, waived a preliminary hearing and was released on $10,000 unsecured bail. A message left at his suburban Norristown home was not returned.
The charges followed an investigation that began in 2013, under Shapiro’s predecessor, Kathleen Kane, who prosecuted a string of corruption cases against state officials until she herself was sentenced to prison for perjury and abuse of office.
Martino served as Assistant District Executive for PennDOT’s District Six, based in Norristown, between 2006 and 2014.
Kane’s office “received a tip about corruption” and “a cooperating witness gave evidence against Martino, who oversaw general maintenance and roadside management programs” in his state job.
According to Shapiro’s statement, “after a contractor who paid bribes to Martino did not perform the work for which they were paid to do, Martino looked the other way. He even had one Bucks County inspector fired for refusing to approve the work the contractor had not performed.”
Following a statewide investigating grand jury, ten PennDOT managers and employees were charged with accepting kickbacks from contractors in exchange for padded payments. Most of the charges were resolved without prison sentences.
“Most of the charges were resolved without prison sentences.” Isn’t that nice? A little bit of corruption among friends of the politcally connected is just baked into the cake. Shapiro gets to put on his “tough on crime” hat with a positive headline while the actual criminals walk away with a slap on the wrist and your money. What a deterrent.
Are you happy with this stewardship of your tax dollars?
Here’s another fun story in which NBC10 followed Norristown Council President Sonya Sanders’ to document her abuse of her parking privilege:
For more than a week, NBC10 Investigators observed Sanders parking habits. More than once, traffic enforcement officer passed by her car after seeing her borough-issued placard.
After requests for an interview, Sanders said in an emailed statement that she would no longer use the placard to park for work.
“I recently made an error in judgement in the use of the municipal parking placard,” she wrote. “To that end and out of an abundance of caution, I have asked the Municipal Administrator to redirect my entire June 2019 Council stipend to the Municipality’s General Fund, which will more than cover the relevant parking fees.”
In a follow email, Sanders said she meant her June 2018 stipend, which amounts to $402.
Do yourself a favor and click through to the link (again, HERE) and watch the 60 Minutes-esque video of this report, which you would be forgiven for thinking is the nation’s next Watergate due to it’s breathtaking seriousness. This story was treated as a major expose, with hidden cameras and everything, and it’s difficult to figure out why such resources were dedicated to it, especially when NBC10 was among the last local news organizations to waddle in to the missing Philly millions story. Look, I’m no fan of politicians abusing their privilege and while I find the entire story amusing, I’m still wondering who put NBC10 on the trail and why.
But the real head scratcher in this story is offered only as an afterthought:
Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny, who is also employed by Sanders as the Norristown Borough Solicitor, believed that Sanders parked in the courthouse staff garage when she was working for him at the Sheriff’s office. Kilkenny said he directed her to begin using the garage spot going forward.
Sanders works for Kilkenny at the Montco Sheriff’s office by day and by night, Kilkenney is employed by Sanders as Norristown’s solicitor.
Yep, nothing to see here. That’s not incestuous at all. Just ignore that and watch how NBC10 is getting your $402 back.
We’ll take a swing down to Delco next, where Jessica McCusker, a 15-year employee of Upper Darby’s tax office, embezzeled $216,700 between 2012 and 2017. Believe it or not, this story is from the Patch (yes, the Patch is still around. I was just as surprised as you were.)
An investigation was launched on May 22, 2017 – one year prior to McCusker’s arrest and charges – after an Upper Darby official found cash receipts for payments of residents’ taxes in McCusker’s door, the DA’s office said.
Then a digital check of tax payment deposits showed they were not put into the township’s account, the DA’s office alleges.
She then was unable to explain why the receipts were in her desk and why they were not posted to the township accounts, according to the DA’s office.
Officials suspended her in June 2017 then county investigators interviewed her days later, the DA’s office said.
During the interview McCusker admitted to taking the money and using it to move with her children from her marital residence to an apartment, to rent the apartment, pay tuition, pay credit card debt, and to buy drugs, according to the DA’s office.
More great stewardship of your tax dollars. And it was going on for five years.
We’ll go down to Delco again, where Rose Marie Lyons was charged with felony theft by deception, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property and access device fraud between July of 2009 and December of 2015, while she served as president and recording secretary of the William Penn Education Support Personnel Association. Another inside job. Delco Times:
A former employee of the William Penn School District allegedly stole more than $210,000 from the bank accounts for her fellow district employees’ union to support her gambling habit, according to criminal charges filed this week in district court.
Rose Marie Lyons allegedly then replaced some of the stolen union funds with her gambling winnings and other means, including stolen checks made payable to the school district and IRS refunds apparently belonging to people for whom she prepared income tax returns, the charging document indicates.
Lyons, 52, of the 2500 block of North Jefferson Street in Wilmington, Del., and formerly of Delaware County, surrendered Tuesday at Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division headquarters. She was accompanied by her defense attorney, Robert C. Keller.
Lyons was released on $100,000 unsecured bail.
According to Keller, Lyons is now retired from her school district job, which he described as “an administrative role.”
This is just a sampling of public dollars being mismanaged within institutions that are entrusted to spend it wisely, by folks who are already drawing a paycheck on public dollars. Imagine what is simply slipping under the radar.
Still wondering why I only talk about local issues?
If you are one of those people inclined to complain about national issues and you are not paying attention to what’s going on in your own backyard, then you, sir or madam, are part of the problem. Government left to its own devices grows corrupt rather quickly. We used to rely on the local press as a watchdog on our government. But the local press has been ineffective for years.
With local news, you can’t depend on anyone other than YOU, the taxpaying citizen, to mind the store. Keep yourself informed, whether it’s reading local blogs (there are several good ones in the right hand column of this blog) attending meetings, or watching online.
The other side of the story dies in darkness. And democracy dies in apathy.