Gazette abdicates its role 

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I was more saddened than shocked to open the Sept. 4 Gazette and see my old editorial page, for probably the first time in its history, selling out its editorial independence in pursuit of one publisher's personal agenda. I'm sure a few folks took delight in seeing my old employer taking me to task for daring to ask for an independent audit of the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. But no one who cares about keeping City Hall honest should applaud the Gazette's sudden switch from watchdog to lapdog.

Whether one loves or hates the Gazette's editorials, most will agree local media shouldn't become a plaything of the city's good old boys and girls. It owes its first allegiance to average readers, and average citizens. It's an ominous development to see the city's daily selling out to folks with a narrower agenda.

The Gazette's anti-audit position stands in glaring contradiction to everything the page once stood for: limited government, accountable government, good government. "Freedom philosophy," as we in the company called it, can officially be declared dead with the publication of this editorial. The page no longer is tethered to a coherent set of values and ideas, which transcend the personal whims of publishers who come and go. It's now officially an EDC tool, thanks to a publisher for whom its editorial traditions seem alien and abhorrent.

The editorial never mentions that publisher Steve Pope was just named to the EDC board, starting Oct. 1. It declines to disclose the Gazette as a major funder of the EDC. These facts may have helped readers put its audit position in context. It's as much an ethical problem as philosophical: Full disclosure would seem the least that readers were owed.

"Freedom philosophy" has been the newspaper's touchstone since 1946, when it was acquired by R.C. Hoiles. It stood the test of time for decades, carving out a unique place in American journalism. Whether you agreed or not, you always knew where the paper stood. It had an intelligent, consistent world view. And you trusted the integrity of its ideals and motives, even if you disagreed. That one latter-day publisher would put decades of integrity at risk is shortsighted and sad.

Support for the audit would have been a slam-dunk when I edited the pages. We would have applauded any City Council member for asking. We would have understood that no organization is entitled to public money without public scrutiny. We would have welcomed a step toward more oversight and accountability at City Hall, sorely needed at this moment of deep distrust.

My request wasn't meant to stigmatize the EDC; it's simply an attempt to exercise independent oversight over public funds. Such scrutiny should apply to any private entity that gets city or utility funding. Some EDC insiders and supporters take it personally; they've pulled out all the stops trying to derail the audit.

The financial reports the EDC publishes annually, indicating its books are in order, aren't adequate. I'm interested in a deeper look, exploring not just how the public's money is used, but whether the return on investment is as advertised. How much public money goes for salaries and overhead? How much for wining and dining prospects? Do public funds flow to the EDC's political activities? Are the job attraction numbers that the EDC touts, supported by facts?

Are taxpayers/ratepayers getting a good return on their investment? The Gazette seems sure they are, but I think the public is owed independent verification. Exercising oversight is a proactive, not reactive, exercise — something you do even in the absence of dark suspicions. That's what this is all about.

The Gazette's absence of interest marks another step in the slow demise not just of "Freedom philosophy," but the paper's independence — its refusal to toe the line for the well-connected clique that thinks it runs Colorado Springs. That loss won't be felt just by the city's conservatives and libertarians, but by anyone interested in keeping local government, and local leaders, honest. By relinquishing its watchdog role, the Gazette breaks its connection to the people who pay the city's bills — and happen to be its readers and subscribers.

This will only hasten the decline of a once-great paper.

Sean Paige, former Gazette editorial page editor, serves on the Colorado Springs City Council and blogs frequently at locallibertyonline.org, where a shorter version of this piece first appeared.

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