Shaw: As Media's Presence Shrinks, Taxpayers Suffer

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 damned.

BGA President Emeritus Andy Shaw writes a bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Last month the Chicago Tribune announced another round of newsroom layoffs, and a day later the Better Government Association posted a story about an unusual, contentious and possibly illegal shutdown of the public library in south suburban Riverdale.

More in a bit about how those two seemingly disparate events overlap. But first a word about why a dustup in a tiny, down-on-its-luck community many of you couldn’t find on a map should concern every Illinois taxpayer who cares about good, efficient government.

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. Candidates for the “Cooked Books” aisle?

Anyway, running out of cash, the library reduced hours, closed weekends and then shut down completely from December to March. The library board’s shutdown vote was in private, an apparent violation of Illinois’ Open Meetings Act.

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.

Adding insult to injury, property owners found the usual levy for operating a library they were locked out of on their new tax bills.

Put it together and whaddaya got? Not bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, but government at its worst: No transparency, efficiency, service or accountability.

So how does this relate to the Tribune layoffs I mentioned at the top of this column? Read on:

Riverdale may be extreme, but the abuses it highlights aren’t unique. Officials in myriad communities try to keep residents in the dark about how and why decisions are made and actions taken with their tax dollars.

Illinois has more separate units of government than any other state, and too many, like Riverdale’s library, have overseers who would rather hunker down in their bunkers than embrace tax-saving mergers.

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—i.e. Tribune cutbacks—public officials face less and less scrutiny, emboldening them to misbehave with impunity, laws and taxpayers be damned.

Riverdale’s in a “news desert,” an out-of-the-way place that gets little or no attention from mainstream media unless a murder or riot attracts TV trucks. Wonky issues like a library controversy? Fuggedaboutit!

The BGA’s not insulated from these forces. We have limited resources and tend to deploy them on investigations with broad scope and impact. It took Riverdale activists three tries over several months to get us to realize they, too, suffered from government abuse with implications far beyond their town.

It’s good they persisted, and the Riverdale library’s transgressions should be investigated by the Illinois attorney general. But sadly, 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.