In Lynwood, one of Southern California's poorest cities, a Los Angeles Times investigation recently uncovered graft so rampant that one wonders how it could have gone unnoticed for so long.
A laundry list of misdeeds is detailed by Times reporter Richard Marosi: "A majority of the City Council enjoy six-figure incomes, lavish foreign travel, and the generous use of city credit cards for meals and entertainment," he wrote, "including steakhouse dinners, a New York musical and a dance show in Rio de Janiero."
All that in a city where residents earn an average of $9,500 per year, face a $1.3 million budget gap, and pay City Council members an official salary of $9,600 annually.
With one City Councilman charging taxpayers for a trip to a Ghana beach resort in 1999, another spending $1,300 to attend his college fraternity reunion, and a third collecting $110,000 in salary in 2001, why wasn't anything
done about graft in Lynwood sooner?
"Lynwood's generous pay has evolved through a combination of voter apathy, scant media scrutiny and limited access to City Hall records," Marosi writes in his 1,700-word expose.
In fact, much of the graft exposed by the Times was uncovered in public documents, and closer scrutiny by residents or the press surely would have moderated the behavior of elected officials years earlier.
More than a million dollars later—money that could've been spent on police officers, fire fighters, or other services—the people of Lynwood have learned the hard way what happens when voters, and the press outlets that
they rely on, don't pay proper attention to local government.
Like many communities in Southern California, the Los Angeles Times is the only major paper to cover Lynwood. The Long Beach Press Telegram, which sometimes covers major events in Lynwood, doesn't even assign a reporter to the city, though it's only 13 miles
from Long Beach.
The Times can't claim to do much more. In a phone interview, Marosi said he covers more than 10 cities in an area of Los Angeles County where political corruption is common. "Right now most of these politicians are behaving because they saw what happened with the recall in Southgate," he said. "But we'd never been in Lynwood reporting from City Hall before, and I didn't have the time to look into there until I did the investigation."
The Times' size and regional focus, and the sheer number of municipalities in its coverage area, probably makes it impossible for the newspaper to effectively monitor every city where it is the paper of record. But in areas of Southern California where mid-sized local papers compete with the Times, readers get far better local coverage, often with a reporter assigned to cover a
single city hall.
That's the case at the newspaper where I work, a 70,000-circulation daily that covers a dozen cities in the Inland Empire. A reporter is assigned to each city, regularly
attends City Council meetings, maintains a database of campaign contributions, and regularly reviews municipal expenditures.
So it goes with the Press Enterprise in Riverside County, the Los Angeles Daily News in the San Fernando Valley, and the Orange County Register in much of Orange County. Talk to reporters on a city beat at any of those papers, and they will tell you two things—no amount of scrutiny can eliminate political corruption completely and, given the amount of corruption that occurs with press outlets watching, extreme graft is not surprising when no one is watching.
Of course, reporters conduct interviews and cultivate sources within city governments in order to uncover corruption. But many other tools used by reporters are readily accessible to the public. For example, municipalities must provide copies of most documents to residents upon request, and elected officials must disclose campaign contributions and financial interests.
Many times graft can be uncovered with minimal effort—if only anyone cares enough to look.
"Lawmakers in California have attempted to craft open meeting and public records laws so that government is an open process," according to Richard McKee of the California First Amendment Coalition.
McKee, who often threatens cities with court challenges when misdeeds persist, said newspaper coverage often prompts the involvement of his organization.
That wasn't the case, however, in Lynwood.
Before the Times launched its investigation, resident Miguel Figueroa spent two years pursuing a lawsuit to force the city to turn over credit card records and council earnings information.
"When he finally got them he turned over the credit card records to me," Marosi said. "That's when I launched my investigation."
Without gadflies like Figueroa, reporters at major newspapers like the Times might never investigate a city like Lynwood.
So should residents take a day off work, file a records request at city hall, spend a weekend pouring over the paperwork, then tune in to the council meeting after work Wednesday night to see if the mayor recuses himself on
the fifth item?
A more realistic solution is increased patronage of local newspapers.
Whether citizens lean on the Times to assign more reporters to local beats, increase subscriptions at local newspapers, or create a demand for new newspapers to begin publication, more press scrutiny fueled by reader demand is the most cost-effective means of preventing government corruption.
There's no more practical way to learn that the city council bought second-hand fire hoses from the mayor's college buddy, or which day the planning commission will
determine whether or not your neighbor can sell sex toys out of his garage.
Unlike most citizens, reporters have the advantage of knowing public records laws as well as city officials. And even mid-sized newspapers often retain an attorney to challenge municipalities who will not comply.
Moreover, in a rare case like Figueroa's (few citizens pursue legal action against city officials on their own), the Times had the resources to take a couple of public records and launch a full investigation into City Hall. And the publication of its findings, in a front page article on September 15, served as a far more influential wake up call to voters than Figueroa could have mustered on his own.
Local coverage aside, the advantages of newspapers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal are clear. The writing, editing, and layout are first class. Staff writers around the world often provide top-notch national and international coverage. Op-ed contributors are world figures, the columnists are at the top of their field, and the extra sections (arts, science, technology, etc.) . . . well, they exist.
And sure, it may be boring to read about the councilman who siphoned $500 a year from city coffers.
Yet, if no one pays to read about such things, no one will bother to cover them at all. Soon, an emboldened councilman will steal hundreds of thousands of dollars and by the time he is caught the city will be forced to lay
off three firefighters and two librarians to cover the cost.
Clearly, citizens can't afford a local government—the government that affects them most directly and is influenced by them most easily—that squanders their tax dollars on graft.
Civic responsibility demands a better-informed electorate, lest we accept local governments that are doomed to corruption and failure while no one watches to prevent
Fortunately, local newspapers are inexpensive, efficient, and willing little watchdogs—as long as anyone cares to support them.
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Conor Friedersdorf works as a journalist in
Return to the Spring, 2004 edition of Local Liberty