Advisory: A Crusade for Eco-Devo Accountability

October 24, 2012

There’s good news in Marion. The newspaper there, defying the role of booster that characterizes local journalism today, is asking hard questions about what local government is doing with economic-development dollars.

Trips to China by job-hunting delegations of politicians and tens of thousands in tax-leveraged seed money have yielded little but disappointment. Only the folks at the Marion Chronicle-Tribune  — officially at least — are asking why.

The newspaper is bucking an establishment that includes a popular Republican mayor. It is trying to open a public discussion on what went wrong with the economic-development promises, what really would attract jobs and investment.

That politicians can be wrong – and be so for inexplicable lengths of time – is not news. But to say that is not mere polemic reflex. As a reminder, an editor friend carries a clipping in his wallet of a methodical review of more than 250 government projects. The researchers found that under-estimates could not be explained by error. They were best explained by “strategic misrepresentation.”

Yes, that means lying. Examples of how editors once saved readers from such “misrepresentation” abound in the history of American journalism. As their meager resources would allow, local newspapers performed a constitutional duty as the honest arbiters of brute democratic forces. Particularly instructive was the hounding from public office of the various city political machines of the late 19th century. Newsrooms of that day not only exposed the misrepresentation but pursued those doing the misrepresenting — to ruin, if necessary.

Anymore? Not so much.

Editors at some chain newspapers try to fit into the community as they find it, making no waves, going along to get along, waiting for corporate headquarters to give them their next assignment. Few would dare suggest, for example, that their mayor is something of a “Music Man” selling economic-development schemes rather than nonexistent band instruments.

That’s what David Penticuff, editor of the Chronicle-Tribune, suggests in an essay for The Indiana Policy Review entitled, “Right Here in River City.” Mr. Penticuff has taken on the job of exploring whether Marion’s job-creation efforts make any sense.

Much of what he has found so far is based on observation outside government. Officials in Grant County have kept a lid on economic-development dealings and their costs. But as every good police reporter knows, corruption follows the inarguable good. That is so whether it is the infusion of musicals skills in adolescent wastrels or the finding of jobs in a recession-squeezed Indiana city. Transparency is the anecdote; it’s what journalism needs to keep a community healthy.

“There are many questions about who profits from what, what promises are made and who subsequently breaks them to make hopes for jobs an apparent sham,” Mr. Penticuff writes. “Journalists at the local level need to be able to explore and expose such matters. Private organizations that use public money need to open their books to the people who keep them in business.”

This past weekend, his newspaper published a front-page article by its Matt Troutman under the headline “Development in the Dark.” An accompanying editorial asked for transparency from a heretofore uncooperative officialdom.

The article’s focus was a county “growth council” similar to those that have cropped up throughout Indiana. These are quasi-official organization where public and private monies are mixed in ways that at best are complicated and at worst malfeasant.

Neal Ronquist, the Chronicle-Tribune’s publisher, is supportive of opening economic development to the daylight even as the newspaper maintains its membership in the local growth council. Indeed, his company has put money into its projects as well as generally supporting its goals. Even so, Mr. Ronquist wants the chips to fall where they may. He believes keeping track of how tax money is spent is one of his newspaper’s most important roles. He believes that even if it means being accused of thwarting progress.

The concern is that the Grant County Economic Growth Council receives almost $300,000 in tax money a year (.03 percent of the county’s Economic-Development Income Tax in 2011) but no one from the state Board of Accounts or in local government can convince the newspaper that they know exactly where the money goes.

“This situation with the Growth Council and taxes being passed directly to them raises the question of how those dollars are being spent — there’s a lack of transparency. And secondly, it brings to question whether they still remain a private organization,” Mr. Ronquist says.

His newspaper’s editorial puts it even stronger:

“The Growth Council needs to be accountable to its members and to the public that now funds it directly. To say it is OK that they are not accountable is to say that we as a community have installed a class of people who may simply do as they please, when they please, with other people’s precious resources. We know that this situation is not right, and we suspect that it is not legal under Indiana law.”

One can bet that the Chronicle-Tribune will get pressure in coming weeks to back off its position, to be more reasonable. They won’t. The editors and their readers now understand that prosperity requires more than ballyhooed trips to China. It requires willingness as a community to debunk political promises, even when they appeal to the citizenry’s most heartfelt wishes, in order to objectively identify what attracts investment.

Before that can be done, however, a local newspaper must put its reputation on the line to expose those inevitable, official and often self-serving “misrepresentations.”

You should hope more will do the same.

— Craig Ladwig



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