Ignoring ‘Minor’ Public Agencies Lets Officials Off the Hook

A couple of recent news reports are worth sharing here because they also remind us of the obligations of our leaders to us—and of our obligations to us. They also raise the question: When will they ever learn?

• 8 News Now’s I-Team did a pair of reports on the Boulder City police chief, Thomas Finn. More accurately, he’s now the former police chief, having been terminated after returning from a medical leave. He has filed lawsuits and ethics complaints against city officials, including Mayor Roger Tobler and Councilman Cam Walker. Finn contends there’s a Mormon mafia running Boulder City, which Tobler denies. But he also denied that anybody gave orders to City Attorney Dave Olson to end his interview with I-Team reporter George Knapp when the cameras and microphones clearly showed the truth to be otherwise.

• Andres Ramirez has been doing articles lacerating the Nevada System of Higher Education and Chancellor Dan Klaich. Ramirez ran unsuccessfully for the Board of Regents several years ago, has been an aide to Senator Harry Reid and serves as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus. He attacked Klaich’s “unchallenged authority to stifle free speech” and his funding formula, which manages to protect northern campuses at the expense of southern Nevada schools. Ramirez also said he has faced pressure to shut up.

These may seem like minor issues. How do the issues in Boulder City stack up against the legislature’s fiscal doings or Steven Brooks’ meltdowns? When sequestration is reducing spending and activity at Nellis Air Force Base, why should what the chancellor and NSHE are doing or not doing matter?

This is an old response. After the horrors of 9/11, it seemed that any politician who brought up an unrelated issue faced attacks for not paying attention to such larger issues as war and terrorism. Even back in the Civil War, Congress managed to set up land grant colleges, a Homestead Act and a transcontinental railroad while dealing with such matters as fighting a war and making decisions about emancipation and confiscation.

Part of the problem is our attention span. How much can we actually pay attention to? The answer is: a surprisingly large amount. We multi-task, we comment on dozens of subjects on Facebook or Twitter and we watch more complex television shows than previous generations.

Another difficulty is with us media folks. Whether in print or in broadcasting, the bulk of coverage over the years has been devoted to the Clark County Commission and Las Vegas City Council. That makes sense. They govern the most people and revenue. For many years, the Review-Journal and Sun assigned one reporter to a “suburban beat” of North Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City, which cover about as much physical space as the others and now have almost as many people as either the county or the big city. The papers often assigned one reporter to cover both K-12 and higher education. It was easy for elected and appointed officials to fly under the radar.

We also have to face the fact that these two factors combine to produce hubris, the belief among those officials that they can get away with a great deal. Consider that less than a decade ago, four county commissioners wound up going to prison in the G-Sting scandal in which they took bribes or moved money for a strip club owner. How and why did they think they could get away with it? Partly because they had the feeling they weren’t being closely watched.

The media and politicians talk about the value of transparency. Politicians often just pay it lip service—we know that and, when we don’t, the media remind us. But the media often go through fits and starts of covering these issues, of making them and their actions truly transparent. With modern technology such as Twitter, we can learn more about people and issues and follow them more closely. Our obligation—to invoke another song popular in the 1960s—is to let the sunshine in.