That's life: Your local government works

Tony Bender
Local Columnist

I've covered hundreds of school board, city council, and county commission meetings over the years, and I'll tell you something you'd probably hear from any newspaper person who's done the same; by and large, your local government works.

I can't count the number of times I've had a breathless citizen, Joe Coffeeshop, tell me what wacky thing the county commission is plotting, and yet, when you sit through a meeting, you find good, thoughtful decisions being made. Do they sometimes get it wrong? Sure, with hindsight being 20-20, but I'd be hard-pressed to remember the last time I disagreed with their decisions once I knew the facts. 

One of my best experiences was covering the Adams County Commission in Hettinger. At first, I was lost, but Commissioner Lennie Jacobs, who later became a legislator, kindly leaned back in his chair during the meeting and explained the broader picture and history of each issue and did so each meeting until he deemed this fledgling able to fly. A thoughtful, good man.

I learned a lot from a competitor who later became a good friend, too. I'd been taught the old school way. Sit. Shut up. Report. Except Al McIntyre, the owner of KNDC radio, kept quizzing them during meetings and sometimes volunteering insight. Sacrilege! But I soon appreciated the wisdom of the approach, realizing that Al saw himself both as reporter and patron, and if he knew something they didn't or caused them to see a better solution, it moved the community forward.

As a young publisher, however, the first club out of my bag was the driver. When I got to Hettinger, I discovered that the city council had used a brief legislative loophole to avoid publishing the minutes, and I asked them to resume, but they shot the snot-nosed new kid down. So I spent the next month mercilessly pounding them, doing such things as publishing blank spaces the size of the last minutes, noting that the total cost was a paltry $38. Then, just empty space. What were they hiding? (Scary music.)

In an editorial, I urged citizens to contribute a dime to the destitute city, their share of publishing the minutes. Soon people began stopping council members on the street, handing them loose change. One county commissioner even gave the mayor a quarter. I'll never forget the motion from Councilwoman Bette Sanger at the next meeting: “I suppose it's time to grease the squeaky wheel.” 

I adored her.

I eventually realized that a conversation with Sanger, who wore hats, blood-red lipstick, and was a battle ax in the best sense of the word, would have gotten the same result with no embarrassment to the council. 

I still have the driver in my bag, but I rely on my short game most of the time. At some level, though, the relationship between reporters and elected officials can get adversarial, and sometimes I've screwed up and had it coming. I don't think that was the case when McIntosh County Commissioner Ron J. Meidinger took umbrage at my coverage of a hot-button issue and threatened during a meeting to make sure my rural road was never plowed again. I don't remember much of what I said but I said it with my index finger three inches from his nose. I still like Ron. In fact, I think I liked him better afterward. I can respect a good street brawler. 

One thing is certain, these government bodies are directionless without a good business manager, in the case of schools, or an auditor, in the case of cities and counties. Adams County had a great one. Betty Svihovec wasn't an auditor as much as she was the queen and a savvy political tactician who always gave the commission ample facts with which to make decisions. Did she steer things? Sure, but she was elected to serve the public good, too. Checks and balances. She didn't always get her way, but she offered immense value to county citizens.

I work with some excellent auditors and business managers in McIntosh County, too. I don't call after a meeting and ask specifically, “What the hell just happened,” but sometimes not far from it. Again, you've got sharp people with institutional knowledge that isn't easily replaced, and the really good ones can simply the explanation so even a reporter can understand it.

It's fashionable these days to criticize and conjurer up conspiracies about government, but on a local level, anyway, I'll assure you that once elected, your neighbor doesn't take a blood oath to put the screws to you at every turn. They're just like you. They want to make your community better. 

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