Jul 29, 2010

Francke advice about Bell

In the last few decades, First Amendment attorney and government-watchdog Terry Francke has done more to make small-town newspaper reporters better journalists than just about anyone else I can think of. He has generously offered his expertise to anyone who has his number, me included, and that has enabled reporters digging at the edges of local corruption to get inside scandals using tools like the public records to pressure obstinate city officials.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Francke sees the Bell corruption scandal as a direct result of the disappearance of small-town newspapers. Here he is in the Voice of OC:
...the Bell spectacle is what happens to communities without their own old-fashioned diligent news coverage by veteran newspaper reporters, or at least smart reporters led by veteran newspaper editors. The result need not be on paper, but it must be done with the community memory and professional savvy almost unique to newspaper-trained journalists with experience watching small-town politics.
 Francke argues that laws such as the Brown Act, which requires city agencies to discuss their business in public, do little to protect against the excesses of a Bell city council unless someone trained in its workings is on hand to act as a watchdog:
...the long absence of a community newspaper covering the city closely left Bell not a perfect storm but a perfect swamp. The Brown Act, cultivated over more than a half century by the newspaper industry, virtually assumes that newspaper reporters will be on hand to use it in scrutinizing government behavior. But even reporters require a bit of periodic training to help them decode agendas and read between the lines of official meeting bureaucratese that the Brown Act is just vague enough to permit as barriers to ordinary citizens.

What's needed by Bell -- or any newspaperless town that wants to avoid becoming another Bell -- is steady, consistent coverage by competent observers with journalistic talents and instincts (whatever their publication medium or platform) and some rules better than what the Brown Act now provides.
While Francke would like to see some reforms in open-meeting laws to boost transparency, he thinks it's unlikely they'd get by the government lobbies in Sacramento. The best solution, he says, is for Bell residents to turn their anger into organization:
The nice thing about small towns like Bell is that getting enough signatures to put such a reform on the ballot is a smaller task as well. If even half the people who have been storming Bell council meetings in recent days to protest the revealed abuses were to organize into a sunshine ordinance drafting and circulation committee, they could literally write (and pass) their own ticket to a transparent city hall.
*Update: City and state officials are gathering in Sacramento to talk about ways to make the pay of city officials more transparent. At this point, it feels more like a distraction from the stalled budget debate than a real effort at reform.

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