Weekend Watch: Public officials facing less scrutiny by journalists

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As print and broadcast media keep shedding staff to cut costs, public officials face less and less scrutiny, emboldening them to misbehave with impunity, laws and taxpayers be damn (WLS)

As print and broadcast media organizations shed staff, public officials face less scrutiny, emboldening them to misbehave with impunity, laws and taxpayers be damned, according to the Better Government Association.

Kiannah Sepeda-Miller, of the Better Government Association, talked with ABC7 about one story from Riverdale which illuminates the problem.

The library board in Riverdale voted in private to shut down the public library. The decision was contentious and possibly illegal because of an apparent violation of Illinois' Open Meetings Act.

Like many south suburbs, Riverdale suffered a serious erosion of its tax base in recent decades as jobs and businesses fled. That translated into sky-high property taxes to pay for everyday services more affluent communities take for granted.

Riverdale's cash-strapped parks, schools and the village itself imposed cuts and other efficiencies, but the library was slow to adjust to diminished revenues, so last year Mayor Lawrence Jackson dangled a financial carrot: Fold the library into village government.

The money-saving merger offer was rebuffed because, Jackson says, library officials were unwilling to let him peruse their books. Not the ones in the stacks, but the ones on how library tax revenues were being spent.

Running out of cash, the library reduced hours, closed weekends and then shut down completely from December to March.

Residents with questions about the shutdown hit a brick wall. Library officials posted a notice indicating open records requests wouldn't be processed during the closure, another apparent violation of state law, and retirees who tried to enter a closed-door meeting in search of answers were turned away by police.

There is a lack of transparency, efficiency, service or accountability.

The job of journalists and watchdogs is to hold government officials and politicians accountable. But with fewer and fewer professional reporters on the case, as print and broadcast media keep shedding staff to cut costs, such as the Chicago Tribune cutbacks last month, public officials face less scrutiny.

The BGA believes that the Riverdale library's transgressions should be investigated by the Illinois attorney general. However, there aren't enough watchdogs left to shine a light on every Riverdale and hold all their officials accountable, and that should alarm every taxpayer in Illinois.

You can read the full Better Government Association story online at bettergov.org.
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