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Public is woefully uninformed on school, city hall, county business

Editorial by Matt Marquardt –

I go to quite a few meetings, as many as I can, that pertain to our schools, city hall and county.  These are our three biggest taxing entities if you happen to be a property owner.  Take a look at your yearly tax statement.  Mine happens to show that 42.2% of the property tax I pay goes to the Mason City School District.  Roughly 37.4% goes to the City of Mason City, and roughly 17.5% goes to Cerro Gordo County.

As I attend these meetings, I look around at the “audience” that sits and watches the elected officials make decisions that can have a big impact on aspects of our lives.  The gallery is shamefully thin to put it mildly.

At last week’s school board meeting, the agenda was full of important items, ranging from change orders and other details on the multimillion dollar school renovation, to next year’s student fees and meal fees, to the contract of the school superintendent.  There were two sales people, myself and a Globe reporter in attendance.  That’s it.  I got the sense no one was thrilled that I was there.  NIT intends to cover more school business.

The Cerro Gordo County Supervisor meetings have always had weak attendance.  I do believe the average person has no idea they meet, let alone what they are , what they do nor what they talk about.  Their meeting agendas are brief and offer few, if any, details.  I asked the supervisors once, on camera, if they wouldn’t mind including a packet with their meeting agendas which would detail the agenda items at more length.  I felt the public would be more informed if they had the public information (background) on the agenda items readily available to them.  I was told by Supervisor Jay Urdahl (pictured) that “we are not the city council” and if I wanted more information I could stop by after the meeting and ask for it.  So much for informing the public before the meeting takes place.

The Mason City Council meetings have become a joke.  Mayor Bookmeyer and other council members actually mock the fact that none of the people they serve show up and speak at either public forum; there used to be a steady stream of folks who took advantage of this opportunity.  Bookmeyer (pictured, right, giving information to a Globe reporter) once wanted these public forums, pillars of democracy, shut down.  It seems to have worked out that way.  The audiences are one-fourth the size they were only months ago.  We have the honor of our third ward councilwoman Jean Marinos making decisions for Mason City for the last several weeks from the shores of Europe… drawing her paycheck as usual.  I wonder if the third ward feels well-represented.  Most city business is hashed out in work sessions which are even more poorly attended and not televised.

Why is attendance at these meetings so thin?  Why are people not more interested, until it is too late, in how these elected people are running things?

My opinion is this:

First of all these elected (and appointed) people like it this way.  They do not like to be second-guessed nor scrutinized.  Many of them have thin skins and can’t take it.  Some of them seem to feel like since they took their seat, they can do no wrong, and they know better and are somehow smarter than those they represent.  This may be true in some ways, since the public is, on the whole, uninformed and many times disinterested in what they are doing.  This could be described as apathy, or perhaps people are simply too busy dodging bullets and making sure nothing got ripped off last night to make time to get informed.

Your local officials want their meetings to go smooth, no surprises.  To accomplish this, if they can get away with it, they give as little information to the public as possible.  If the people don’t know, they won’t show up and there will be no hassle.  The supervisors perfected this and have every intention of continuing.  Bookmeyer programmed his six council members to go along for the ride, not to question anything, and simply back slap each other.  (I hope the city’s medical insurance covers lawsuits stemming from repetitive stress injuries to the shoulder, forearm and hand.  One of our council members is known to be lawsuit-happy.)  If they don’t talk about the city’s problems, the issues do not exist, seems to be the Mayor’s theory. Heck, maybe he can even get his crony media newspaper to write a story that says crime in the city is down; that will quiet the rabble.  I feel the school district (pictured) operates this way as well.  These folks are spending the most money, making big decisions, and there is scant news coverage, no TV to watch the meetings, no witnesses.  There is no scrutiny in any newspaper story about what these people do, no hard questions, just fluff.  The newspaper wants these people to be their friends; it makes their story writing a lot easier, so you will see little truth in their material.

At the end of the day, you, I and our neighbors lose because of this wall that has been erected to keep you uninformed, to keep you out.  The only way over it is to get involved, ask questions, and vote.  Oh, and showing up at a meeting once in awhile wouldn’t hurt.

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