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Why we still should whip up the window shades on that sticky, sweaty city sex scandal

What if I said an embezzlement investigation is under way at the Shasta County administration building, that it involves high-ranking public employees, that eight have already been found out, four are gone, four are not, and that most of the stinking mess is sealed from public review?

Would Shasta County be concerned?

Damn right! We'd call for heads to roll, declare a cover-up, demand names be named. We'd insist on knowing who was fired and who was just slapped, who got protected and who was fed to the wolves. We'd require restitution of stolen taxpayer money. We'd never stop bitching until we tracked down every last name and dollar. Our dollars! Public floggings in the town square!

And we'd be flabbergasted if the local media didn't dog every detail.

And we would be right.

Well, there's no county hugger-mugger, so we can relax. But riddle me this, Joker: How is it we can get so steamed up for some things but we got squeamy-squirrelly when it came to the Redding City Hall Desktop Bareback Rump Romp & Rodeo?

Suddenly, we were a lot less willing to cheer on the media when they called for government transparency.

Why the double standard? It shouldn't be any different. The R-S was right to go after details of The Case of the Incredible Cock-Up last fall when the HR folders slammed shut. And Shasta Superior Court's Judge Jack Halpin was right to rule Tuesday that, with minor restrictions, the paperwork should be unsealed.

Good for them. The press is supposed to kick down government doors.

Only then can the public know that the right processes were followed, the right people were punished, the punishments fit the crimes, and innocent bystanders weren't wrongly blamed.

The point of bringing legal pressure against a government agency is to force the question of transparency when the government would rather be opaque, and what government wouldn't want to be opaque?

The point is not to embarrass the cockamamie cowpokes' co-workers and family, although that is usually the unfortunate side effect. But let's remember who really exposed their coworkers and families to public humiliation. It wasn't the reporters. It was the people who played Hide-the-Salami on company time. If they'd kept their pants zipped up and their pantyhose on -- or if they'd at least had the wits to plunder the pussy willows on their own dime -- there'd be zero to talk about. In the end, they are to blame for embarrassing people, and as every mother will tell you, they should have thought of that sooner.

It's standard and customary to tie the newspaper to the town whipping-post and flog away, but the newspaper was correctly doing its watchdog job.

For the record, the folks who closed the city files were doing their jobs, too: protecting the city from employee invasion-of-privacy lawsuits. This way, if everybody did their job right, the matter had to go to court. Then, whether the city was court-ordered to open the files or keep them sealed, the city would be judgment-proof. Sensible risk management, really.

But back to why getting the whole story, even if it took months after the story first broke and everybody else has moved on, was important. The government is not an independent entity. It works for us, collects our money, spends our money and makes public policy rules that affect our everyday lives. Government employees are supposed to be accountable to us. Their activities are supposed to be clear to us. As the judge ruled, the public has a right to know how the city deals with employee violations. Once governments start deciding for themselves that they answer only to themselves, we're in big trouble.

The fact that the city's issue was a sex scandal instead of a financial scandal makes zero difference. I know, we have to think about arithmetic to convert stolen time into stolen dollars so we can cope, but don't be frightened. We can do that. The equation still equals theft and dishonor.

And can we please cut the crap about not needing the distasteful details? Are we not grown-ups? So there was wild weenie-wagging. So what? It still was a case of gross employee misconduct that needed to be dealt with. (Really gross.) Let's try not to faint.

City Hall is a glass house. People in glass houses should fuck around somewhere else. Glass houses aren't designed for private exhibitions.

I want to know how the case was handled at every step -- not to shame the rest of the naughty ninnies but to know that the discipline process for public employees was fair and thorough. I want to know that the rotten worms are all out of the fruit. I want to know that those employees who remain and those in charge are beyond reproach. I don't want to have to wonder. Do you?

I applaud newspapers for taking a stand for open government -- and taking the heat. If they don't do it, nobody will. They deserve our support. Their point is not about digging for juicy details and a privileged view. Their point is about keeping government honest and bearable and real -- for everybody.

3 comments:

  1. Suddenly, we were a lot less willing to cheer on the media when they called for government transparency.

    I suspect it had a lot less to do with squeamishness than it did with that story breaking at the same time the R-S was nosediving rapidly into Weekly World News tabloidship. It was difficult to tell where truth ended and gratuitous ruination of lives & careers began - not in the reporting itself, but coincidentally with Doni's firing after her refusal to muckrake and other changes in the kind of news that took the front page.

    to know that the discipline process for public employees was fair and thorough. I want to know that the rotten worms are all out of the fruit. I want to know that those employees who remain and those in charge are beyond reproach

    I've been a long-time county employee and I gave up all expectation of those things years ago. Cronyism is alive and well in the government, as I suspect it is in the public sector. Not that all employees are engaged in that kind of thing: most are not. But there's enough distrust of the government, and a popular view of all of us as overpaid & underworked hogs at the public trough... forgetting that we are taxpayers too. The average line employee sees things going on - not as obvious as the sex scandal, but other moneywasters - and if they should try to get changes made, they will be ignored/slapped down/transferred/disciplined.

    But like Dennis Miller used to say, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

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  2. Kelly, you are absolutely right about the lack of distinction between a fiscal misdeed and the sexual misconduct at City Hall. As this incident has unfolded, I have been reminded of policies within local county government which state that an employee does not have a reasonable right to privacy with regard to workspace or electronic equipment. Why would one think that there would be any difference for actual physical activities within a government building?

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  3. Kelly, thank you for the first resonable explanation I've read about the RS pursuit of this story. My thought is that there must have been a sense of laxness about accountability of time and work responsibility that mislead people into thinking that they could do what they pleased on the job. I imagine that the scene was set by some veteran employees of the city. It's unfortuanate that a protocol was not in place to handle these issues before they became big enough to become public, and cost people their jobs.

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