Private citizens know that, more often than not, a decision to not act responsibly with finances carries with it a series of swift and often harsh repercussions.
If you fail to pay your mortgage, rent or property taxes, you may very well find yourself without a place to live. Fail to pay other bills, you’ll find the service for which you failed to pay cut off, often mercilessly. If you lie or cheat on the taxes you pay, you may lose your freedom.
If you fail to account for where your money is going and do not make plans in advance to meet your obligations, you will soon find that your finances are in disarray, and many aspects of your life are impacted.
That’s the reality for private citizens.
However, it’s clearly apparent that is not the reality when it comes to government agencies. In fact, in the City of Martin, failing to properly account for funds and meet your legal and ethical obligations may just get you a bonus.
During a Nov. 26 meeting of the Martin City Council, the council voted to approve a “cost of living adjustment” (Christmas bonus) for employees, and, one official told us, council members as well. That Council Member, Bonita Compton voted against it, citing that no information was given to council members about how much the increase will cost or how it will impact the city. She and Council Member April Gayheart do not accept pay for their work on the council.
“How can we give a cost of living adjustment when we do not know our budget?” Compton asked. “We do not know what we have and what we don’t have. I mean, I’m all for the people getting a cost of living adjustment, but what is the cost of living adjustment that you’re projecting to give them?”
This action comes as just the latest affront committed by this government body against its citizens and just adds up to show how far removed Mayor Sam Howell and the rest of the council believe they are from the people they’re elected to serve.
For months now, we and others have attempted to get just the minimal financial information from the city in order to make some determination on the city’s financial health. The city, however, remains in violation of a direct order from the state’s top prosecutor — the attorney general — to turn over those records to us and a private citizen who has requested them.
Make no mistake, this is an anomalous situation. Our newspaper company produces newspapers in four different Eastern Kentucky counties and, in the case of most government bodies, no matter how small, obtaining basic financial information is, more often than not, something we obtain without asking, as just a normal course of doing business.
A citizen should be able to, and is most often able to, obtain that same information, simply by asking for it or filing a request.
The reason that information is not often hidden is that it is so vital to the operation of a government body. Government bodies, like Martin, are charged primarily with ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately and in a manner that serves all. This is their primary duty.
Martin either will not or cannot share that information publicly, and we can’t figure out why. We know that the city is in debt, but we don’t know how deep that debt is. We don’t know if the city even has the money to pay for the bonus the council gave themselves. We’re expected to simply take Mayor Howell’s word for it that the money is “in the budget.”
The thing about corruption is that it has two primary characteristics: It often comes about without intent; and it eventually infects everything.
In your residence, if you go into a room, shut off all sources of light and close the door and walk away, over a long period of time, corruption will eventually set it. A pest or number of pests will eventually work their way in and begin to thrive. Mold may begin to grow in places unseen.
The problem is, in that darkness, the downfall of an entire house is sown, because the corruption eventually spreads and takes root throughout the home.
Government corruption is much the same. It often happens because someone chooses to ignore an area of responsibility. Then the corruption spreads throughout the agency. Cover is required to prevent people from finding out the state of the structure. That cover requires another cover.
Eventually, a failure to do what is right morphs into outright criminal activity.
As much as we can’t understand why Martin can’t simply share basic information that would allow us to see the “state of the structure,” we’re even more confused as to why no one, except some concerned citizens and the local newspaper, is stepping in to do anything.
Again, a private citizen committing acts to hide finances, sinking into debt, will face severe consequences. Is Martin above even an examination by regulators to find out what is happening? When will someone step in? When will the people of Martin and the entire area see justice done, or at least see the books opened?
We’ll continue watching. We’ll continue covering. We’ll continue asking the tough questions. We’ll do all of this because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.