November 3, 2013 by wcobserver
By Steve Winkler, Publisher, Web Editor, Photographer, Writer and Chief Agitator–
Back in the Observer’s glory days when we put the ink on the paper (a “real” newspaper, as some say) we had an occasional column called “Publishers Pondering” which was neither editorial nor hard news which was mostly ramblings by myself or co-publisher Susan McCarthy. This post (that’s what they call an editorial, article or feature in online publishing these days) is a salute to that tradition.
This little mom and pop celebration of the first amendment right to free speech and a free press has evolved, like any species, and adapted to survive a changing environment. Gone is the excitement of the local newspaper office at the corner of Centennial and Dogwood in West Fork. The paid writers, the university journalism student interns, the columnists and ad sales people have all moved on. Susan sold her interest in the business to me last year. So basically the Observer consists of a grumpy old man (with a supportive and gracious wife) hunched over a keyboard with an internet
connection. The mission: promote and nurture democracy in one little town one in the Ozarks. How to accomplish the mission: keep the public informed. Use the rights granted to the free press to cajole, encourage, coax and, yes, insist that the local government operates in the open, actions and people are accountable. And don’t forget “the rule of law “(which to us, means more than flying flags on main street). It means obeying the law; federal labor laws, environmental laws, state statutes regarding elected officials, Freedom of Information laws, municipal laws regarding public nuisances, animals, signs, and all the rest of the code. The folks who disagree with those objectives are the political enemies of this publication and we use the resources we have to defeat them. Politics is a bare knuckle sport.
So what stories are in the pipeline? What raw data is being gathered to analyze and summarize into something that can be used as a basis for rational decision making by the voters?
The hot story is about the City Clerk Marsha Hungate. A look at her email communication (acquired using FOIA) with the mayor sheds light on the state of cooperation or lack of it, in city hall. One article has been posted and more will follow.
Two accounts of Butch Bartholomew’s problems with employee overtime have been published. So far his mismanagement of employ time records has required a transfer of $12,000 from savings into Street Department operations. This appears to be the tip of the iceberg. This situation is being followed closely and will undoubtedly result in more posts.
The Parks Department is experiencing management concerns, a disgruntled citizen threatening to sue. Additionally there has been an obvious and admitted violation of the FOI rules on conducting a closed Executive Session. No one has filed an official complaint, yet. The placement of the Parks Department in the organizational chart is still unclear. The position, duties and accountability of the elected City Clerk, Treasurer/Water Department Office Manager are also convoluted.
Ongoing story for several years now. Alderman Sergeant is seeking to return Butch Bartholomew, paid by the autonomous Water Commission to the position of city business manager which was eliminated by the mayor last year.
The mayor asked the fire chief to resign. He refused. I have interviewed both Mayor Hime and Chief McCorkle. The complex intertwining of the city and rural fire departments including lines of authority, retirement insurance issues and ownership of equipment needs sorting out before a story will be written and posted.
The planning commission has been short of members. The secretary resigned chaos ensued. Through a FOI request I have been reviewing all the email communication (2 inch stack, $24) between Commission Chair Mike Landa and several public officials. Organizing the information has been a time eater. One early find is that the Chair of Planning and Butch Bartholomew the person responsible for lot splits for the city have had no written communication in the last 18 months.
A post about grants received by the police department and the establishment of a legitimate police commission along with a conversation with new Police Chief Collins convinced us to withdraw work on an story pointing to all the irregularities (no fixed terms, not sworn, not meeting as required by code) of the commission during former chief’s (now alderman Mike Nelson) tenure.
In the works also is a editorial aimed at convincing the powers that be, that in the interest of justice, an ordinance establishing a one mile Planning Boundary needs to be accompanied by an ordinance allowing two seats on the Planning Commission be reserved for members that live in that area. Those residing out in the county but within that boundary will be paying a fee and asking permission from the city of West Fork to divide their property. Let’s not forget the “consent of the governed” principle that the founding fathers were fond of.
The situation with announcing planning commission special meetings concerning the boundary issue was the source of Clerk Hungate’s outrage. We (other people are helping) are gathering information on how the city handles internal communication. We have gathered data on email distribution lists used by various officials and departments. I called four neighboring towns to find out how they comply with meeting notification and internal communication. Story forthcoming.
There are several other happenings being followed. The Friends of the Library membership is considering whether to own the old Christian Church building that adjoins city property next to the Library. The city declined the gift. Judging by the enthusiasm of attendees at a presentation by the regional trails group this story will need writing. And of course, the 2014 general election will be here soon. That’s when we mobilize our expert staff of seasoned political analysts and commentators. Can’t wait.
And finally, we’re assembling data from our archives to tell the story of West Fork’s already tremendous advancement toward open government. When we began this crusade in 2009 it was almost impossible to know who the city officials were and few if any public meeting were announced. Some commissions had discontinued even having meetings. Many citizens seemed resigned to living a stagnant, underachieving bedroom town run by a few families, friends, cronies and an unelected town boss. The situation changed. It’s better here.
Citizens past and present nurtured the spirit of community by establishing the Parks system, supporting the Library, organizing the Police and Fire Departments, building the Community Center and publishing a newspaper. The Observer is proud to be part of a tradition that continues to transform our town. As the “newspaper guy” I have made some enemies; no surprise there. But I have, more importantly, made friends in the process. They come from all political perspectives, faiths, and demographic statuses but we share the simple idea that the government, even at the municipal level belongs to all the people.
Category Publishers Ponderings | Tags: