Question Power? Absolutely!

■ Melissa Diaz Hernandez / Reporter

Editor’s Note: This opinion, authored by Melissa Diaz Hernandez, is the unanimous opinion of The Valley Chronicle staff.

It is the job of the journalist to speak truth to power. Journalism is imperative to the survival of our democracy. It is not the job of the journalist to be a public relations representative but to question the role of power and hold it accountable. It is the people’s right to know when their government, local-to-federal, abuses power.
Yet, those in power think they have the right to dictate what journalists question and publish. This isn’t just happening at the national level. It’s happening right here in our local community. When we see abuses of power, such as people being silenced in a public forum, a lack of fiscal transparency, the prevention of true oversight, in addition to a heavy dose of conflicts of interest—it is the job of the journalist to inform the public. Those in power see the act of informing the public as a negative attack on the community rather than an important part of the democratic process to reveal truths — regardless of whether they are negative or positive.
In Hemet, we have seen a mayor infringe on one’s constitutional right to free speech with the abrupt treatment of a grieving mother. On Feb 28, the Hemet City Council conducted a work study to address how the council meeting minutes should be recorded. Councilwoman Karlee Meyer’s hope was to make them more thorough and transparent. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. Prior to the work-study, both the names of the individuals and summaries of their comments made during the open public forum were included in the minutes. Now, only the speakers’ names are listed. All the comments are omitted. Does this have to do with the city’s wanting to quiet the voices of family members who have lost their loved ones to violence? Is it a matter of cost? Hemet City Clerk Sarah McComas stated during the work study that verbatim minutes would cost about $1,000 per meeting.
The bids for the Fire Battalion Chief Vehicle were not transparent, resulting in the award going to the higher bidder. Only an excel spreadsheet of selected extracted information was included with the staff report in the Feb. 28 agenda. If I were on the Hemet City Council, I would want to know why. Only after submitting a California Public Records Act request, did The Valley Chronicle have access to the entire bid packet submitted by both Chevrolet of Watsonville and Reynold’s Buick. The council unanimously approved the award to the higher bidder. The difference between the bids, some $13,000, is about a third of the Hemet annual median income. That $13,000 could have been used to record 13 meetings worth of City Council meeting minutes in the most transparent way.
Our city passed a tax after citizens were promised an oversight committee to ensure fiscal responsibility and see to it that the additional tax receipts went to public safety. That promise, however, was in the form of a nonbinding resolution. Clearly, there are conflicts of interest embedded in the Council-selected oversight committee. Since our poverty rate stands at 26 percent, it’s worth noting the city just overspent its budget using funds from our reserve account—an advance on Measure U. Yet funds from the tax do not begin to generate until April 1. This is why it is necessary for our Council to scrutinize every penny spent and even more necessary for journalists to report out the information.
The voting record of elected officials matters. If an elected official is questioning or in opposition to an item and votes in favor of it anyway, the voting record stands. People remember the voting record but they only remember it if the information is reported out. It is extremely important that journalists dig in and get the facts on what is happening so that citizens can participate in helping to turn this city around. Change is not going to happen if the same decisions are made time after time. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Another abuse of power is the refusal to comply with the Freedom of Information Act-inspired California Public Records Act. On the local level, this has proven to be quite telling. It can take several requests to get information before a city agency complies, apparently only after it concludes we will persist. Sometimes we’re lucky if we receive anything at all. The refusal to comply and provide information that should be public knowledge is a problem not just for journalists but for citizens and taxpayers. Shouldn’t the public know how their money is being spent and what policies their elected officials are enacting? Shouldn’t it be the right of the citizens and taxpayers to know the job performance reviews of those in managerial/administrative positions, particularly when we are spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars on their salaries?
Journalists are not motivated by greed or hate or the desire to cast a negative shadow on the government. We are motivated by the desire to bring the actions of those in government to light and by speaking truth to power.

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