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Demand accountability before things go wrong | Publisher’s column

By KEVEN R. GRAVES
Whidbey News-Times Executive Editor & Publisher
July 30, 2014 · Updated 4:18 PM
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Each and every one of us bears some responsibility for the financial calamity that has befallen Island Transit.

There are critics of IT who’ve remarked to me that they saw this disaster coming for years, like a train wreck happening in slow motion.

Whidbey’s transit system, however, was widely held as a shining beacon of how successful fare-free bus service could be. State and local lawmakers lauded it as a well-oiled engine. In some ways, Island Transit became untouchable — to ask questions was sacrosanct.

Employees of IT emailed the newspaper their anonymous tips, but all were too afraid to speak on the record for fear of retribution and losing their jobs.

A couple of citizens told me they faithfully attended IT’s board meetings for years and asked tough questions, but that any concerns raised were marginalized and hushed by the IT’s many supporters.

Over my 25-plus–year career in newspapers, I’ve seen how the accountability of taxpayer-funded agencies eroded as open government laws weakened and citizens became increasingly apathetic.

While open government laws were designed to protect the people, it seems at times the people don’t want to be protected. If the media presses for information, or files a public records request, it’s criticized as a burden that costs government employees time and taxpayers money.

Now more than ever, newspaper reporters get a runaround when public information requests are filed. In response to one recent request, a large taxpayer-funded agency responded that the newspaper can expect to wait six weeks for a response.

Government agencies are increasingly enabled to make costly decisions outside the prying eyes of the public and the media. Some boards set their meetings at times that aren’t convenient for anyone but themselves. There are grumbles, but nothing is changed.

Even if meetings are held at convenient times, there’s usually nary more than a reporter in the room. Attending government meetings is up there with watching paint dry.

When something goes awry, or a scandal erupts, though, there’s suddenly blame and a call for heads to roll.

Yes, well-paid public servants like Martha Rose must be held accountable when money is mismanaged. At the same time, citizens need to reclaim ownership of their taxpayer-funded agencies, attend meetings, ask hard questions and push for tougher open records laws that don’t allow agencies to drag their heels and play games.

Take back your voice and demand greater accountability of government employees before things start going wrong.

 


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