People look at you funny when you're in a small town
February 17, 2017 3:11 PM   Subscribe

My question is about how to fight small scale corruption in a small town (in the US). I believe there are some MetaFilter readers here who are involved with local government. I have a friend (John) who is involved in local politics in a very small town. John is part of an organization comprised of several elected individuals who have oversight over a small budget (think a town council, county commissioners or school board). However, due to the way the local and state government is set up in his state and jurisdiction, there is little oversight of the group. The issue is continual shady dealings that go largely unnoticed by the public.

Here is a hypothetical example of shady dealings. Committee member Anne proposed fixing the town sign. However, John went to inspect the sign, and although there were a few small nicks, overall the condition was fine. Meanwhile there are multiple other issues that also need funds such as a bridge that has been out for several months and several road repairs. It turns out that only certified sign-repairers can fix the sign, but there none to be found in the city. Then, it turns out Anne's brother in law was just made a certified sign-repairer so the contract goes to him.

The above scenario is not uncommon. If it matters, all members are of the same political party. There is small local paper, but it does not print anything controversial and John wants to avoid the spotlight. There are several other members John can work with and sometimes overrule these things, but Anne and others have been on the group for longer period of time and have considerable influence. John has also tried encouraging other people in the community to run for office, with little success. Is there anything else John can do? It seems odd that there is no oversight, but I am not familiar with local government.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If there's a local paper, you could check their web site and see if there's a way to submit a story idea anonymously. Personally, I'd be cautious and use a soft phrase like "Could this be considered a conflict of interest or is this an acceptable policy?" and let the editor decide if it's worth looking into.
posted by stray thoughts at 3:53 PM on February 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes, local paper is best bet. Any editor worth his/her salt would appreciate this tip. Also, good advice from stray thoughts about distinction between providing a tip and making a judgment.
posted by John Borrowman at 4:06 PM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Once John has actual evidence of wrong-doing, he should tip off his state AG's public integrity section. The example given is a little hinky but falls pretty short of what most people would consider corruption, especially if the relationship between Anne and the sign-repairer was disclosed and Anne did not vote on awarding him the contract.
posted by praemunire at 5:59 PM on February 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yep, state AG is where you go with this sort of thing. Choosing sign-fixing over road-repaving is the sort of bad decision elected officials are free to make and is not corruption; giving a no-bid contract to the relative of someone with authority over the contract is potentially problematic -- particularly if Anne didn't recuse herself from the vote.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:32 PM on February 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

John could make the process more transparent, e.g., promote participatory budgeting or say that he wants to hold a town hall about setting budget priorities. He doesn't have to say "I think the potholes are a bigger priority than the sign" if the public will say that for him.
posted by salvia at 9:08 PM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Someone should make FOIL requests for the data and then publish them. Also, in NYS, there is a person who is essentially in charge of the sunshine laws (transparency). If your state has one, contact that person. (In NY, it is Robert Freeman.)
posted by AugustWest at 10:36 PM on February 17, 2017

Also keep in mind that if they are unpaid or just given a stipend, working in small town government is a giant pita and someone has to do it. So if they're fairly competent sometimes this kind of thing is the price you pay. Also it's possible her BIL gave the town a deal, sign painting is shockingly expensive. I'd look into that first.
posted by fshgrl at 11:09 PM on February 17, 2017

I've had actual experience with exactly this sort of thing- keep your nose clean and collect info. A trusted witness is helpful. When/if you have solid evidence of illegal activity contact the state police, they will help you. And keep paper records of all your activities, when people get cornered they will lie like crazy to get out of it- make sure you are unimpeachable.
posted by Admiral Viceroy at 7:52 AM on February 18, 2017

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