January 2012 Issue
My Ohio: Democracy in Action
A young reporter covers government where it matters: at the local township hall.
This is a presidential election year, when the nation’s collective attention turns to matters momentous and profound. Or maybe it’s matters trivial and superficial. Still, we’ll be focused on the race for the White House and the attendant ceremony of televised debates and balloons rising to the ceilings of bustling convention halls.
In the meantime, democracy’s daily drudge will be carried out by far less charismatic people in much-humbler public venues. As we know, public services most likely to affect our daily lives are delivered by city and village councils, local boards of education and zoning commissions: government bodies charged with plowing the snow and collecting the garbage, for maintaining sewer and water lines and for providing both public safety and education.
Unsung and generally unknown, these public servants toil in obscurity and attract little media attention
except from the small daily and weekly newspapers and their modern descendents, the online “community news platforms.” Indeed, it was at a small daily paper that my reporting career began 30 years ago, learning up-close the real essence of small government: township boards of trustees.
In my memories, the township halls of northern Portage County merge into one sturdy wood-frame building, built in the 1800s. They seemed spooky to me at first, sitting alone as they did in pools of sodium-vapor light on dark winter evenings. Inside, the scene generally involved the three trustees and the township clerk at a rickety banquet table, set before a few rows of folding chairs. Usually, I was the only witness to the discussion about which roads would get new gravel next year and whether the cemetery maintenance crew really needed a new mower.
One night, after a brief pre-meeting chat with the township clerk, I skipped the meeting, believing that nothing worth writing about would happen that night. The next day, defending my action to a dumbstruck editor, I said, “but the only thing on the agenda was next year’s road maintenance plan!”
The editor shook his head. “Roads is what township trustees do, kid.” Okay, so he might not have said “kid,” but the unspoken pejorative hung between us like the smell of hot asphalt.
After that, I stayed until the final gavel sounded, lest I miss the arguments for and against a new copier for the firehouse.
Eventually I was promoted to covering village-hall meetings and rural school boards. During one school-board meeting when it was time to approve the annual budget, the members of a small rural school district couldn’t conjure up a quorum. The board president and the legal counsel, after conferring quietly in the corner, crossed the cavernous six feet between the meeting table and my wobbly chair and spoke to me in confidential tones.
“Listen, M. has to work this evening and we don’t have a quorum. He told S. how he would vote, and really, this is going to be unanimous anyway. So, we wonder if you would simply cover this as if M. was here at the meeting.”
I felt the blood rising uncomfortably in my cheeks as I found myself required to take a principled stand for the first time in my fledgling career, in the face of a group of perfectly pleasant people my parents’ age who clearly meant no harm.
“Um,” I said, struggling to sound professional, “it’s not really legal to do it this way, right? And, I’d basically be lying to my readers, right?”
They smiled, no doubt wondering who “my readers” might be, and then invoked some rule that allowed them to adjourn, notify the local paper of record (that’d be me) and reconvene 10 minutes later at the Burger King up at the freeway interchange, where M. was a night shift manager. The board, then properly seated on molded plastic benches, voted to approve the annual budget, with a side of fries.
I wrote the story in the empty newsroom late at night, recounting the change in venue but leaving out the fact that the board has asked me to fudge the facts. I’ve often wondered whether I should have told “my readers” about this strange request.
And now, 30 years later, I have.
Randy Edwards is a Columbus-based freelance writer.