What can you do to expose and prevent "small town politics"?

by Jordan Green

Public trust in government is about as low as ever, and it’s not hard to see why. Allegations and reports of crooked dealings and underhanded political tactics seem to flood the national news. These days, about the only people who admit to liking politicians are probably politicians themselves.

If you’ve ever heard people talk about small-town politics, you know that bad things happen even in seemingly quiet, friendly communities. Public corruption is a problem across the United States. So, what can average, everyday citizens do about it?

Perhaps more than you think. On Thursday, I had the honor of giving a presentation in Chicago about how people can get involved in their local governments to prevent graft and corruption. (The irony of giving a discussion about public corruption in Chicago was not lost on me, either.)

The presentation highlighted a few practical ways that we the people can make sure our government leaders are working for us, not themselves.

One of the best ways ordinary, unelected people can help make government run more efficiently and transparently is to attend public meetings. Attendance at City Council and school board meetings in small towns across the United States is often low, meaning that few people are fully aware of what is going on in their town and school system. It’s much easier for elected officials to raise utility rates, award contracts to friends or slip personal agenda items into public policy without the public’s awareness.

Going to a public meeting may not be everyone’s idea of a fun time, but as citizens of the United States, we are fortunate to live in a country where we can be so freely involved in our government. We have the chance to speak for or against issues that truly matter to us – such as who our city hires to oversee emergency services, which roads get repaved, how our water plant operates and how much we pay in utilities.

People can create change by attending these meetings and asking questions of their leaders. Generally, when people are closely watching what their elected officials are up to, officials tend to behave better. Going to public meetings is one way we can help keep government clean.

Another tactic we the people have at our disposal is the ability to file open records requests. Whether you’d like to know more about the city manager’s salary, how much money the school paid in legal fees, how much a given construction project costs or almost anything of that nature, you can find the answer by filing a request with the governing body in question. Oklahoma, like all 50 states, has laws that protect a citizen’s right to learn more about the innerworkings of government.

Most citizens aren’t aware of how much information they can access under these types of laws, and I’d encourage you to do some research to see just what kinds of information you can rightfully request and obtain.

These documents are often treasure troves of fascinating data, and by simply requesting these records, people can show public officials that they’re keeping an eye on them. Open records requests are a major source of news, and often, the information revealed through a request can shed light on some surprising situations.

If a governing body refuses to grant a request, it’s important to see whether the governing body truly had the right to reject it. Some documents, such as personnel files, are generally off-limits. But some agencies have been known to reject requests because they don’t want people to know the truth. If that’s the case, it’s be important to alert a higher power, such as the state attorney general. Who knows what they might find going on.

Finally, one of the best ways to prevent graft and corruption is to support local media outlets that do watchdog and investigative journalism. Across the nation, small-town newspapers and news websites need more funding to keep their reporters digging into the issues that plague their communities.

Reporters often have more time, experience and resources to closely examine what’s really going on in government, and that kind of work is vital.

There’s a reason Thomas Jefferson said he’d rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. Small-town media outlets like The Journal-Tribune care about their people and their community, and they want to make their community better. Holding elected officials to account is central to our mission. To accomplish it, we need people to subscribe and advertise.

Anyone can sit around and talk about how bad politics are in America. But few will take a stand and get involved in government to make it better. What will you do?