Lights! Camera! . . . . (inaction)
The whole world quite literally was watching Monday night. Even the Voice of America was there to tell its global audience how, if citizens aren’t on their guard, rights can be trampled not just in developing countries but in the great bastion of democracy itself.
When video cameras came on, however, Marion’s city council blinked. The mayor was absent — not, as he claimed, for the first time, either. The police chief , who rarely ventures out of his office except to exercise and raid newspaper offices, didn’t show. The city attorney scooted out before citizens could speak. And everyone in attendance was warned — not just orally but in bold, red, all capital letters, followed by 47 exclamation points — that if they wanted to ask why police thought it necessary to lead a coordinated raid on two homes and a newspaper office much as if they were attacking a jaywalker with a tank, the council wasn’t going to answer.
So there was no word on whether the police chief might be suspended for conducting what absolutely no one other than he and an apparently addled magistrate with her own driving record to hide have come forward to say was in any way legal. Even the county attorney said the raid was flawed, though it took him two days to announce what he supposedly already had decided.
The biggest mystery remains why the person who actually supplied driver’s license information, though clearly identified in search warrant applications and much to her own surprise, was not subject to a search or even questioned by police.
Was this, rather than a search for knowledge about what at best would be a minor case, a witch hunt targeting those frequently in the crosshairs of criticism from the mayor and the chief?
Sad as it might be that government officials might be abusing their power to score personal points, that wasn’t the worst challenge to democracy that emerged Monday night.
For the first time this budget season, unlike what happens in any other city we cover, a council member actually got to ask questions about what the city plans to spend its nearly nine additional mills of taxes on.
It wasn’t as if she were able to review and evaluate budget requests. She merely was informed what the city’s proposed budget would say and what other decisions had been made on spending, all apparently without any input from the council elected to make such decisions.
We find it unbelievable that a city administrator with less than three months’ experience would make all these decisions himself. We suspect at least some favored council members had input on the budget while others, like the vice mayor, were left to simply read it as if they were just average citizens, coming to a pro-forma meeting Sept. 5 at which budget proposals routinely are rubber-stamped.
Only if large numbers of taxpayers turn out for that meeting and demand answers as to why certain staffing levels or purchases were decided upon — most without a council vote — will democracy still be breathing in Marion.
As for us, we’ve learned valuable lessons. When the police chief was offered a job here, we heard from a large number of former co-workers questioning his suitability. Partly because of a meeting convened by self-styled community leaders, including the sole candidate on the ballot to replace the current mayor, we avoided breaking the bad news publicly and instead informed a council member — who promptly did nothing with it and even deceived us about whether he actually had checked the chief’s full record.
We’re not going to do that anymore. What we learn, we’ll report — provided it’s newsworthy. If it’s a bunch of allegations providing fodder for a divorce case, we won’t — just as we didn’t with the information we were accused of stealing rather than attempting to verify as part of our professional evaluation process.
The international outpouring of support we have received after bullies in government tried to put us out of business reminds us that we have a sacred mission to pursue facts so citizens can be informed.
We would love it if facts about Marion’s city government always were positive. Unfortunately, they rarely are. And readers have a responsibility to demand more than pablum news about such things as how one council member’s primary task appears to be to make motions to adjourn.
We thank the thousands upon thousands who have stood beside us in these trying times, but we also ask: Where will you be Sept. 5? The fate of democracy hangs in the balance.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Aug. 24, 2023