How to Keep an Eye on Your Local Government Officials
Why do city and town governments exist ?
If you have ever given this question some thought, the chances are you figured that they exist to serve us. That’s why we call those town officials "public servants." It’s because they serve the people, right? They clearly work for town government because they are altruists, wanting to do what is best for everybody, regardless of their own self interest, of course.. They might be fancied by some, or even themselves , as "patriots," in the line of the Founding Fathers. After all, somebody must pave the roads, arrest the drunk drivers, put out the fires and make sure the kids get an education. It is all in a day’s work for these selfless dedicated and helpful town officials, who usually provide mediocre service for excellent pay.
Myths sometime die hard. Municipal governments in America are today more often than not nests of crime clubs where bribery, extortion, nepotism and sleaze are ways of life. Whistleblowers can be framed for crimes they did not commit, or even come to experience foul play. Dissidents are carefully watched by the police, and may wind up in hot water for mere expressions of opinion.
Governments are in essence businesses where large sums of money pass through every day, where licenses and permits are sought, where unwarranted criminal prosecutions often originate and where suspicious contracts and purchase orders are awarded. The temptation to steal, to promote graft or to build corrupt little empires is pandemic. Those who seek political position in municipal government often do so for the basest of motives. Others become enchanted with the concept of power, and become corrupted by its taste. Organized criminal networks flourish in the environment of municipal government, and often the line between criminal and town hall employee or official is blurred.
Maywood, California is a good example of a community that reflects the character of a small town municipal government racketeering network. Media accounts report that one third of the 37 officers of the Maywood Police Department have criminal records or other blemishes on their records.
According to the April 2, 2007 issue of the Oakland Tribune, the Maywood Police Department is now under investigation for accepting bribes from the owner of a local towing company. The inquiry includes officials of city government as well.
Another policeman is accused of extorting sex from the relatives of a wanted criminal.
In Kandleton, Illinois, the police commissioner ordered his force to collect all traffic citations in cash. The cash went to the Commissioner who simply pocketed it. The commissioner was sentenced to 62 months by a federal judge.
South Hackensack, New Jersey’s police corruption was so severe, the community’s 17 member police department was actually locked out of Town Hall, and the local prosecutor’s office actually took control of the department. An investigation was begun of improper favors handed out to suspects. Drug offenses, parking tickets, drunk driving cases and the like were simply ignored for people with the right clout.
Several of the officers wound up being exposed for improper ties to a local bookmaker.
This, however, is amateur stuff. The real professional municipal racketeers have a deeper stranglehold on the entire apparatus of the town government. Take, for example, the folks who ran Lonoke, Arkansas. The Town’s mayor, police chief and police chief’s wife have been recently arrested. The charges included operating a crystal meth lab, taking prisoners out of jail, and using them for sexual escapades.
The power held by politicians and their lackeys often includes control over licenses and permits for everything from pinball machines and massage parlors to liquor licenses and building permits. The power to say no is also the power to say yes. This power is a commodity that can be sold, traded or bought.
The power to award purchasing contracts, municipal works contracts, the right to collect overdue parking tickets or taxes, and the power to hire employees all can bring money to a crooked bureaucrat.
The lawyers involved in the municipal rackets are the worst vermin. One rumor circulated about a lawyer who was defense counsel for a small East coast town who had to defend cases for personal injury and property damage. He allegedly had a deal going with the lawyers who represented the victims. He would make sure the victims got larger than usual settlements as long as cash was given back to him.
There is no end to it. In every tiny hamlet from Maui to Maine, the same stuff goes on and never stops. In small towns and huge cities, the worst part of human nature prevails when political power is placed in the wrong hands.
In the author’s hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, salaries of municipal employees are often several times that of the average taxpayer. Town employees vote themselves raises at town meeting, and become the new bourgoise while others cannot afford to pay property taxes and must sell or face foreclosure.
What is the answer ?
Downsizing government gives them less to steal and less power to abuse. Moreover, perhaps a privatization process will put the authority in the hands of those with a different orientation, pleasing the customer, making a profit to please shareholders and saving the customers money and aggravation. While privatization is not a panacea, it might be a step forward.
Making politicians fearful of the citizenry, instead of contemptuous, is necessary.. Citizens who are vigilant and involved rather than apathetic can be a strong antidote to politics as usual. Informed citizens who carefully watch their government are the front line of defense of the integrity of the community.
But letter writing and participating in elections won’t be enough. Town incumbents are often impossible to replace because they have political machines who often consist of other corrupt people, and there are legions of them. Letters to the Editor won’t accomplish much by themselves, though they do raise issues and often do get read.
Without breaking the law, municipal activists need to select the issues that matter most and launch a campaign to embarrass and humiliate the people most responsible. Personal attacks often work. If somebody is guilty of nepotism, identify him. If there is blatant corruption, name them, but be sure the evidence is solid and documented.
Picketing is extremely important, as is community access cable television, the Internet, and poster campaigns.
Small town crooks and bullies need lessons in humility. Give it to them.