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The role of the newspaper is what matters most

September 26, 2010

Periodically, newspapers, including this one, publish a list of all the employees who work in local government along with the salaries they earn.

As someone who is out and about a good bit, I've fielded a lot of questions about this practice, very few of which have been congratulatory in nature.

Why do you do that? What do you hope to prove? You're just trying to embarrass people.

And my favorite: You're just trying to sell newspapers. (We get this a lot, apparently people don't stop to think how that sounds to us when they say it. It's like pointing an accusing finger at an automobile salesman and saying, "you're just trying to sell cars.")

The sad thing is, I've never really had an answer. I'll mumble something about how it wasn't my idea, or it was a different department in the paper that handled it.

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But today I have a very clear answer, and that answer is Bell, Calif.

Bell became famous for, among other financial atrocities, paying outrageous salaries to public officials, including $800,000 to its city manager and $500,000 to its police chief. One of its city council members would have made more money in a year than the entire Washington County Board of Education.

The salaries of public officials in Bell, Calif., are not published in the local newspaper. This is because there is no local newspaper. Hasn't been for better than 20 years.

Jim Slusher, a columnist for the Chicago Daily Herald, apparently had the same thought as I did on this matter, and since he effectively beat me to the punch, I see no need to duplicate his research.

After a couple of calls, he found that Bell used to be served by the weekly Industrial Post, which was washed away by the ongoing trend of newspaper consolidations and downsizing.

The closest the Hagerstown-sized city has now to a local paper is the Los Angeles Wave, a weekly that serves dozens of like communities in the Los Angeles suburbs. The reporter who covers Bell is also assigned to cover 24 other small cities.

By now you know where I'm going with this. If Bell had a paper, and if that paper had printed the salaries of all the communities' public officials, no city manager ever would have dared pay himself $800,000 of the taxpayers' money.

One other comment I received when we would publish salaries was, "None of them seem all that much out of line." No, and one of the reasons was that local governments knew they were being watched.

Salaries are public record, and those who would keep them from being published in a widely disseminated newspaper argue that anyone can walk into a public office and demand the information.

They could, if they weren't -- as many people apparently are in the blue-collar city of Bell -- working two jobs to make ends meet and falling into bed exhausted at the end of each workday. And that assumes the government would be forthcoming with the information, which isn't always the case, unless it knows it is dealing with an institution that won't be discouraged or intimidated by stonewalling.

This isn't to pat newspapers on the back, any more than it would be appropriate to congratulate a sewer-line installer for digging a particularly fine ditch.

It's not the newspaper that deserves the credit, it's the role of the newspaper that matters.

Many crimes are not committed in the first place because of the existence of a standing police force. And many liberties are not taken by those who are in government because of the existence of an aggressively free press.

As we move more and more toward a Webcentric world, this is what we lose. We lose the cop on the beat.

No one is afraid of the Drudge Report. There are people who don't like its content, but it will never put anyone behind bars. And the great majority of blogs today deal with opinions, not facts. They don't stir up any new ground, they just find new, breathless ways of looking at old news.

Bell, Calif., might be an anomaly, or it might be the beginning of a disastrous new trend. In the growing number of population centers with no newspapers to speak of, (or newspapers whose accountants frown on spending money on news-gathering resources) governments will lose the sense that they are being watched and play more fast and loose with the money and power at their disposal.

The press is certainly capable of turning things around. Or perhaps some other media entity will step in and fill the void. But without the emergence of some new form of watchdog, there will come a time when the boyish hijinks of Bell, Calif., seem quaint.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at http://www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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