Think communities don't really need a local newspaper?
When nobody watches city hall, outrageous things can happen.
Just look at Bell, Calif., a town of about 40,000. City officials there were making obscene salaries because nobody was paying attention.
No newspaper covers the city regularly, but the Los Angeles Times eventually stepped in and did an investigation.
The result was shocking.
The Bell chief administrative officer was earning $787,637 annually. He had been hired in 1993 at $72,000, but a series of unchecked raises over the years added up. To put it in perspective, President Obama makes $400,000 a year.
Bell's assistant city manager made $376,288 annually, while the police chief earned $457,000 after being hired just last year. He oversees a force of fewer than 50 people. The Los Angeles police chief, in comparison, makes $307,000 a year.
The Bell mayor and three of the four city council members approved these contracts and somehow managed to put a measure on the ballot that allowed them to pay themselves any salary they wanted. So the part-time officials have been earning between $90,000 and $100,000 a year.
How could they get away with this?
Well, without a newspaper covering the community, city business can be conducted quietly. After all, most citizens have busy schedules and no time or inclination to attend city council meetings.
Those who did said they were suspicious because city officials seemed brusque and secretive. But that's as far as their concerns went. It took the Los Angeles Times and a request for public records to find out what was going on.
Some people think they don't need newspapers. They think they can get everything they need via the internet or other media sources. But when you lose your newspaper, you lose your reporters. You lose some of your watchdogs.
Some communities are fortunate to have enough people interested in their city government that there is no way city business could be kept secret.
But others towns aren't so fortunate. That's why it helps to have a newspaper keeping track of local governments.
A few years ago, the Tri-City Herald did a news story on the salaries of public officials in the community. It included city managers, school superintendents, elected officials, police chiefs and others.
After it ran, there were several complaints by those whose salaries were listed in the newspaper. Some didn't think it was fair or necessary.
Frankly, we don't care and neither should you. Public salaries are open records.
While most government officials try to do the right thing, it's up to citizens and newspapers to keep them on their guard.
What happened in Bell, Calif., could happen anywhere there isn't someone watching.