Thursday, April 25, 2019

Column: W.Va. town suffered after paper closed and local officials weren't held accountable during flood recovery

Andy Prutsok
Andy Prutsok, publisher of the Miles City Star in Montana, wrote a column recently with a cautionary tale about how towns suffer when no local newspaper keeps officials accountable.

Prutsok's first newspaper job after college was with the News Leader in Richwood, West Virginia. Once a booming lumber town, by the time Prutsok got there in 1984, fewer than 2,000 people lived there and the town was "already a shell of its former self," he writes. The decline continued after Prutsok left, and in the late 1990s the News Leader closed.

After disastrous flooding in 2016, Richwood residents pitched in to clean up and rebuild, aided by $3.1 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the state auditor found that city leaders used that disaster funding to hire themselves and friends for flood relief jobs and otherwise wasted most of the money. "As a result, the mayor, the former mayor and the city recorder are charged with embezzlement,: Prutsok writes. "The town’s police chief is accused of mishandling his state purchasing card and was fired and the town council asked the mayor to resign. The town might have to pay back over $2 million of the money received."

Though it's unclear whether the problem was corruption, or honest but overwhelmed leaders, Prutsok says the underlying problem was the absence of a local newspaper. If the News Leader were still around, and sending a reporter to cover city council, "someone, working on behalf of the citizens, would have been in attendance as these decisions were being discussed and enacted, reporting all of it to the public," Prutsok writes.

As more and more small local papers close, "considering the recent raging floods taking place in the Midwest, how many more Richwoods are going to happen?" Prutsok writes.

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