A Good New Year’s Resolution

It’s going to get a bit harder to keep up with local government and that is not a good thing.

As 2018 ends, we see more buyouts at the Bergen Record and sister publications, further decimating a staff that already has been progressively decimated since Gannett bought the place in the summer of 2016.

In the 24-hours news cycle of today, there is, of course, no dearth of national news. Depending on political preference, one has a wide choice of news channels whether it’s 7 a.m., 11 p.m., or anywhere in between. State news from Trenton still is covered fairly regularly by newspapers and other media, although many residents, sadly, may not pay attention.

What happens in your local town hall or school board meeting is quite another matter. Back in the stone age – well, not really that long ago – reporters from regional newspapers like the Record and many others routinely covered such meetings. Sure, a lot of the news was ho-hum, but reporters got to know governmental procedure, learned about issues and developed sources, all of which came in handy when something “big,” relatively speaking, occurred.

Around that time, it was common to hear old-time editors proclaim that readers cared more about their property taxes and their kids’ schools than they did about political fights in Washington, Maybe they were right.

But clearly, that view has changed. Part of the problem is a declining staff of reporters. But don’t overlook the apparent mindset of some newspaper editors these days. A list of the top 10 places in a county or state to get Italian ice or to buy a pair of sweat socks seems to be the priority. not genuine municipal reporting.

Hyper-local web sites like Tapinto and Patch try to pick up some of the slack, but they are limited to specific towns – as opposed to traditional newspapers that sought to cover every town in their region.
Why is it important to care about local government in New Jersey? That’s a legitimate question. The answer is simply because residents pay quite a bit of money to support their local government, schools included, whether they use the services provided or not. That’s the unchanging bottom line.

So broadly speaking, local government is why property taxes in the state are so high. Compounding the problem is that it is some of these same local officials  mind you, who often balk at sensible ideas to save money through mergers and shared services.

Beyond that, there are nuggets of news the public should care about in just about every town.

If the town council hires a new municipal attorney, which is a splendid patronage plum, just what are the new person’s political connections?

If the police chief is retiring, just what is his “terminal leave” package? Even in small towns, these payouts can be massive.

If there is a controversial development before the planning board, has the builder made campaign contributions to the political party that runs the town? What do you think?

With most newspapers no longer keeping track of this stuff, it becomes almost by default the responsibility of the public to do so.

On that end, I saw in the recent NJ 11th For Change newsletter two comments encouraging readers to attend local meetings of their governing body. “There are enough of us … so it won’t all fall on a few,” was one of them. That’s great thinking.

Those immediately included to dismiss NJ 11th For Change as a liberal organization should pause and think again. Think, in fact, about the old municipal government line about their being not a “Republican” or “Democratic” way to fix a pothole. Likewise, governing bodies hiring their friends and making purely political decisions is a very bipartisan endeavor. Both liberals and conservatives should want to keep it from happening.

Having the public watching may not suddenly stop such antics, but it could lead to more people in town knowing about them. And that is half the battle.

My hunch long has been that local town and school board officials love opening a meeting and seeing no reporters or citizen watchdogs in the audience.

A good New Year’s Resolution would be for more people to make sure that doesn’t happen in their town.

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