The flooding that hit Evergreen and parts of Jefferson and Clear Creek counties on Friday the 13th in September presented our four newspapers with the same challenge we face on a daily basis: Trying to cover stories that often overwhelm our resources in their scope and impact.
This was undoubtedly and quite noticeably true of the flooding and of 2012’s devastating Lower North Fork Fire south of Conifer. But the problem also exists in a less-noticeable but far more important arena — coverage of local governments.
A former fire chief in one of the nine fire districts that cross our coverage areas was indicted recently, accused of stealing up to $640,000 over just three years from a small taxing district with a $900,000 annual budget.
We’re familiar with the annual budget in that district because, up until four years ago, we covered its board of directors — sat through the endless meetings as the members hashed out budgets and dispatch problems and training challenges for the volunteers. But our papers were unfamiliar with what happened six months ago, when the chief was put on leave.
That’s because our coverage of the Inter-Canyon district ended when my four papers saw the newsroom staff get smaller. One of the first things to be sacrificed was coverage of the governmental aspects of fire districts with large swaths of territory outside our traditional coverage areas. Inter-Canyon is one of those districts, and I’m guessing we missed some newsworthy exchanges at its board meetings earlier this year.
Even the most math-challenged journalist will quickly compute that a quarter of the district’s budget disappeared for three straight years with nothing to show for it — and, if we’re to believe the indictment, with no one else in the district having the slightest clue as to what was happening, or how.
My voice has filled the wilderness in recent years warning that this kind of malfeasance will grow exponentially as more newspapers are forced to cut staff and coverage. Yet I’m frequently told by non-journalists to calm down — that small-scale corruption is a necessary evil and an accepted part of small-town government.
I don’t want to believe that any level of corruption is acceptable when it comes to the public trust. But think about this as you try to close your eyes tonight: Our papers are one of just two weekly groups providing the only watchdog for the Jefferson County government and the Jeffco school district — two half-billion-dollar-a-year operations. And if you believe big governments are not equally vulnerable to the human foibles that often lead to scandal at the smaller ones … well, I’ve got a printing press I’d like to sell you.
The dikes are failing in places big and small, and the floodwaters are indeed rising. It’s happening every day, and it’s a story no one is covering. It’s not sexy or salacious enough for Twitter. It’s not about celebrities or stories of the moment.
It’s about the eventual end of the republic.
Buy an ad. Buy a subscription. Call me when your local taxing district is obviously out of control.
Mice run amok when the cats are away, or when the Fourth Estate’s felines are stretched far too thin to be a relevant player in our democracy.
Doug Bell is the editor of Evergreen Newspapers.