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The buck stops over there somewhere 

It’s a strange truism of history that popular democratic leaders often leave a troubling legacy — but they don’t do it without help. Tammany Hall and the senior Richard Daley’s empires had their virtues, at least in the beginning, and certainly their adherents. In Shakespeare’s retelling of Caesar’s last days, he flirts with the crown to the crowd’s cheers. If power corrupts, popularity makes it easier for everyone else to swallow. Or not even notice.

Which is why the Express-News’ unabashed romance with the current City Hall leadership has me worried. Should the day come when we have to admit collectively that the over-budget, ADA-oblivious, and plain-ol’ ugly Main Plaza isn’t the sole blemish on an otherwise stellar mayoral record, will our paper of record be able to testify?

Current evidence suggests no. In an early November screed, Express-News columnist Ken Rodriguez delivered a typical example of our daily’s unbridled passion for the Mayor. Painting Hardberger as a crusading populist in contrast to Michael Bloomberg’s demagoguery, Rodriguez railed that the mayor of New York and his council signed a bill overriding term limits while Hardberger “ ... took his message to the people ... debated opponents on the radio,” and “waged a smart campaign.”

He forgot to add: And raised more than $600,000 from businesses and special interests, including $25,000 from Clear Channel, which has worked diligently of late to give citizens less say in their City government. The company, which also donated $40,000 to help sell Hardberger’s successful 2007 bond initiative, has in effect lobbied to gut the Electrical Supervisory Board, the only entity in the City that has consistently sought to blunt Clear Channel’s digital-billboard ambitions `see The MashUp, November 25`.

Under Hardberger’s leadership, Council passed last December’s digital-billboard pilot program, which gave Clear Channel the right to place a dozen high-def variable-message signs around the city, including along Scenic Corridors — a proposal the daily not only didn’t examine critically, but editorialized in favor of. While lauding the Mayor’s green legacy in the (full-price) purchase of Voelcker Park, the E-N has turned a blind eye to the potential fallout from his support of additional nuclear power plants to meet our energy needs, even as troubling reports of employee discrimination and mismanagement surfaced at CPS, our City-owned utility — where the Mayor is a board member, albeit one who missed more than half of the 2007 meetings `See “Hot wired,” August 6, 2008`.

Even when our daily monopoly is forced to recognize blatantly bad behavior at City Hall, they take pains to keep the mud off of the mayor’s shoes. According to Rodriguez, it was the Mayor who led this fall’s “masterful” and successful campaign to extend term limits, but “council” who passed last month’s sham improvements to our weak City Auditor law. E-N columnists lauded Hardberger for expending his considerable political capital (polls have registered approval ratings as high as 80 percent) to get the term-limits bill passed, but declined to criticize him for not spending a penny of that capital to get a meaningful City Auditor law.

The key to that last mystery may lie with City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Her hiring after a diss by the previous council was one of Hardberger’s first moves, and — particularly after SA’s recent AAA bond rating — is considered one of his finest. Sculley gets the same kid-glove treatment as the mayor over at the E-N, where in a single column, Rodriguez lionized Sculley because her former employer, Phoenix, is the only other American city with a population greater than 1 million and a AAA bond rating, then notes a few sentences later that “Phoenix, is in a financial mess.” Never have credit and fault been so neatly severed, not even at the SEC.

It’s also been favorably reported in the E-N that Hardberger is eager to extend Sculley’s contract, which expires next fall, before he leaves office in May. Which makes it unlikely that he’ll do anything to antagonize her in the meantime. The motivation for Council to revisit our seven-year-old City Auditor rule was last spring’s playground scandal: Former City Auditor Pete Gonzales was fired after he poked around some sensitive areas, including Parks & Rec’s inspection of playground equipment. An Express-News investigative story reported that Parks & Rec Director Malcolm Matthews had lied to Council to cover up his department’s lax oversight. Matthews lost his job, but Sculley kept her reputation, although she was one of the City officials who told Gonzales to butt out (The reporter didn’t even contact the Mayor for the story). `Read more about it in “Audit this,” page 13.`

As the playground scandal, the problems at CPS, and the firing of former Information Technology Services Department Telecom Manager John Foddrill demonstrate, we need a strong, independent auditor. Documents acquired through Foddrill’s ongoing civil lawsuit and open-records requests show that the Office of Municipal Integrity swept contract violations and financial wrongdoing under the rug, while allowing Foddrill to be retaliated against professionally for bringing the problems to light — during Hardberger and Sculley’s tenure `See “Off the hook,” October 8, 2008`.

Of course, another reason we really need a strong auditor is that our other supposedly independent check on power — the daily newspaper — rolls over when it comes to our City’s two most culpable leaders. Sure, they nip at Sculley’s and Hardberger’s heels now and then to keep up appearances, but when it comes to City Hall, the E-N’s lapdogs vastly outnumber the hunting dogs.

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