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The press police when the police can’t

Without a doubt, one of the weirdest chapters of my career was the time I spent covering Emmett Township, which hugs Battle Creek’s eastern edge and is the second-most populous community in Calhoun County.

The largely inexperienced board did all kinds of funny and odd things, but perhaps the most serious weirdness was when several township trustees apparently broke the law.

The township, under the new supervisor’s leadership, got into a spat with the countywide 911 dispatch system over fees the township felt were unfairly high. The township board voted at a regular meeting to stop paying its 911 bill, instead placing that money into an escrow account until the dispute could be settled.

There’s no law requiring 911 services to be offered, and the county’s 911 director told the township board flatly that, if they didn’t pay, any 911 calls from township residents would simply go unanswered.

While the supervisor was out of town on a vacation, the rest of the board grew antsy over the 911 director’s threats. Several township trustees — a quorum of the board — gathered at the township office to discuss the issue, without posting a meeting, as required by the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

They decided to pay the 911 bill, essentially reversing in secret a policy that had been established in an open meeting.

Open Meetings Act violations are misdemeanors punishable by a $500 fine. When the supervisor got back to town and found out about the policy reversal, he referred the matter to the Michigan State Police.

As is often the case with alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act, no charges were ever filed. The law says it’s illegal only if the violations were intentional, and it’s difficult to prove someone’s intentions. Plus, some of the trustees denied that a quorum was ever in the building at the same, and the township clerk cited another state law that allows her to pay bills without board approval in the case of an emergency, which she said the 911 issue was.

So the only thing holding those trustees to account were my stories in the Battle Creek Enquirer.

That is the ultimate role of a newspaper: to police politicians when police can’t or, on rare occasions, won’t.

And newspapers play an important role in gathering evidence about wrongdoing that isn’t necessarily criminal, but is a question of political misconduct. Remember, the word “politics” is derived from the Latin and Greek words for “citizen,” and the people are supposed to be more powerful than judges in this country.

Journalists are the detectives serving the court of public opinion.

Take, for example, that same Emmett Township Board of Trustees.

The supervisor said he “forgot a zero,” and allowed a property tax funding police services in the township to expire without going on the ballot for renewal. So the board, using an old state law that allows them to do so, imposed a new property tax for public safety without a vote of its residents.

The board repeatedly insisted to its angry constituents that the tax was necessary only to prevent layoffs for a significant portion of the police force. Yet, immediately after imposing the tax, the board created a few new police positions. Then one of the trustees who’d voted for the unpopular tax resigned from the board to take one of those newly created positions, taking his paychecks directly from that unpopular new tax he’d supported.

Nothing the board did was illegal, so there would be no police report detailing all the evidence, no prosecutor and defense attorney to argue both sides, and no judge to make a final decision about the fate of the accused.

There were only my stories, explaining that the board’s actions were legal and examining the tough financial situation in the township for the defense, quoting the residents’ disgust and their own financial troubles for the prosecution.

Only with the Battle Creek Enquirer could voters get all the information they needed to make a final judgement.

All of the trustees who supported that tax were recalled later that same year.

I would encourage you, dear readers, the next time you renew your subscription to The News or buy a copy at the gas station or take out an ad promoting your business, to think of it the same way you would an investment in a community police force.

Yes, you get fun features and recipes and community calendars and lotto numbers, but what you really get with your newspaper subscription are watchdogs who will stand guard against wrongdoing, even when the law isn’t there to bring justice.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.