Public must hold government accountable

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Call me too optimistic, but glimmers of hope flickered all over the Adams County Board of Supervisors meeting room Monday morning.

Hope and change — not a phrase I expected to apply locally — makes me excited for what our community could become.

Monday, if you looked beyond a few defensive retorts, members of the board of supervisors told taxpayers they were listening. The board admitted a bit of fault, and said they’d work harder for change.

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Let’s hope it’s contagious.

The supervisors were responding to a significant public outcry about county cell phone use. The issue came up after our newspaper published an article Sunday outlining just how many phones the county has and how they are used.

We decided to do the story, not to spite the supervisors or any county employee, as some of them may feel, but to offer an accounting of where a small portion of taxpayer dollars are going. In short, we simply did our job as a watchdog of government.

And as the creator of an Excel spreadsheet — 90 rows by 28 columns — we used to track a year’s worth of bills and minutes for every county employee, I’m overjoyed to hear that something positive may come from it.

Reporting this story wasn’t an easy task, and it’s not the only issue out there that needs attention.

When the county decided to switch from AT&T to Cellular South back in the spring, we decided the timing was right to simply check on the cell phone usage.

In early summer, reporter Cain Madden began requesting a listing of phones from the chancery clerk’s office.

We quickly realized that simply seeking a list wasn’t going to be enough. To truly find the facts, we had to have copies of the phone bills.

Clerk Tommy O’Beirne was always agreeable, as we requested stack after stack of phone records. (Don’t worry, we paid for the copies.)

For weeks on end, every time we received a new set of numbers, we realized there was another set we had to have.

The county’s monthly phone bill with AT&T — approximately 250 pages — contained a wealth of information; information, it seems, no one but us was reviewing.

At times in the last two months, I’ve felt that the spreadsheet I created detailing phone usage was the only one of its kind in the county. The county wasn’t tracking this as closely as we were.

The supervisors confirmed as much Monday, admitting they had no idea what the bills said.

But the board did say they would implement a few new measures to reduce phone usage.

In the grand scheme of things, the cost of the county’s cell phone usage is peanuts. A monthly $3,500 bill isn’t outrageous and dwarfs in comparison to the county’s annual budget.

But it’s the principal of the matter. If our supervisors — self-proclaimed taxpayer penny pinchers — aren’t tracking cell phone usage, what else is slipping by them?

Our elected officials — county and city — need to realize that the public is watching. We’ve entrusted you with our money, but that doesn’t mean we crowned you king.

The public wants answers, has ideas and will always be full of criticism for the government. It’s what makes our nation great.

If a newspaper article empowers the people to demand accountability, I can go home feeling good about the work we’ve done.

If elected officials respond to the public’s requests with positive actions, we can all rest easy knowing our community is in good hands.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551.