Fleischman: Newspapers like The Observer don’t ‘press’ local politicians enough

I’m a blogger, focused on Belleville politics and public affairs. I don’t claim to be objective; I do have an agenda. My agenda is to promote good government, responsible development and encourage residents to engage in “good trouble” by attending public meetings, asking questions and demanding accountability.

I worked in community journalism right out of college, at a time when Belleville and neighboring communities got their news from at least two weekly newspapers, a daily, and local network news. I was mentored by a wise but gritty, tough-as-nails weekly newspaper editor who called out any politician or local leader who wronged the public.

What I find missing today is a journalism that doesn’t just inform but works to right wrongs. The best journalists and columnists have a bone-deep hatred of injustice and the abuse of power. Belleville – and so many other places – desperately needs that kind of journalism again.

The media should see Belleville as a news goldmine. We have a mayor who appears to be the private development equivalent of New York City planner Bob Moses, while clothed in the naked ambition and sense of public entitlement of a political boss. Of course, he’s had help from a largely complicit or silent Township Council.

Meanwhile, Belleville’s Board of Education has become spendthrift in the past few years, purchasing multiple properties and paying rent for several others (including one owned by the mayor.) Most recently, the board entered into an unprecedented “shared services” agreement with the Township, which allows the board to buy another large building while the town builds a public parking deck next to the Middle School.

All this spending, while Belleville taxpayers continue to pay an additional estimated $400,000 a year for a $4 million state loan, because of the shameful 2014 school board deficit. This also is occurring with the apparent approval of a state-appointed school monitor who hasn’t been seen at a school board meeting in more than two years.

Citizens have few options to stop or challenge its governing bodies, and it seems elected officials know this all too well. People can vote, although Belleville has a history of low voter turnout, especially in local elections; they can file suit in Superior Court, but few citizens have money to hire a lawyer; they can file to recall elected officials from office, but such efforts often fail; they can file complaints with any number of state agencies, but at least in Belleville’s case, any action or response seems slow-in-coming, if it comes at all.

Longtime Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was once asked what happens when local journalism disappears. He replied in part, “What happens is the crooks get away with what they wanna get away with…It’s not at the federal government where your pocket gets picked, it’s in the statehouse and in city hall.”

I believe in the power and public role of media. I agree with Thomas Jefferson: I’d rather live in a nation with media and no government than with a government and no media. 

But the media must be willing to relentlessly take on the powerful when they act against the public interest.

As a blogger, I do as much as I can. But our residents need courageous local media to try to put even more scrutiny on what’s going on in town. 

To quote writer Jessica Mitford, “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”

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Frank L. Fleischman III | Belleville