The Watchdogs: Compelling Accountability from Public Servants, Part II


Brian Shiner/Photo by the WBIG

Luzerne County government critic and watchdog Brian Shiner continues his conversation with the Independent Gazette in our second installment of our interview.

John DiLiberto (joking): “I was going to ask you how you felt about the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence . . . and the Founding Fathers, in general.”

Brian Shiner (with a chuckle): “I think they had some good ideas. I think we need to get back to them.”

Compound Constitutional Republics
John: “Well, a lot of people—I like to emphasize our state constitution, as well—a lot of people aren’t even aware, you know, that we do, indeed, have a state constitution. Every state’s got its own constitution, because we’ve got compound republics, and so that’s why we’ve got a state legislature [in addition to a federal one]. The [US] Constitution speaks about a ‘republican form of government’ [for each state in the Union]; of course, that’s not referring to the Republican Party. That means we have these [state] representatives, so we’ve got compound legislatures, compound republics. You hear the term ‘democracy’ often; [now] we’ve got some democratic elements, but we do not have a ‘democratic’ form of government, really, and that’s an important distinction to make. You even hear politicians throw around that term pretty loosely, [and] they should definitely know better. They should know the distinction between a republic and a democracy.”

Advocacy During the County Commissioner Era
John: “What was the nature of your activism under the [county] commissioners?”

Brian: “Just questioning what they were doing. I was actively watching their moves with [regard to] the Hotel Sterling, trying to keep them accountable with that. I saw what was going on with the funding, and that the . . . it seemed to be going nowhere. The promises weren’t being followed through on, and I presented [at] several different times photographs and different things to them, but it fell on deaf ears. There were some other issues that I brought up to them at different meetings, but it was . . . you could go into a Commissioners Meeting and tell them the drapes were on fire, and they would basically say, ‘You know, you’re on a time limit.’ And when you were done, they’d say, ‘Next.’ In the meantime the fire department would be running in, [and] they’d be like, ‘Why are you here?’ Because they didn’t pay one bit of attention to the people.”

John: “Would you say that their attitude was antagonistic, or [were they] just dismissive of [public] input?”

Brian: “Above and beyond reproach, was, I think, a better way to put it. It was like they didn’t have to listen, they didn’t care to listen. They felt they could do what they wanted, [and] that was it.”

John: “Now, was the current group of county critics, if I could term them, to include yourself . . . did they rise up at about the same time?”

Brian: “A lot of the current ones are from then, if not most, and they continue to come and go. Council has made comments at times that the most vocal at the time, the regular attendees, are only a fraction, a very small fraction, of the people they have to listen to, which is true, but it’s difficult to get the rest of the people of the county to the meetings to be heard [and] to communicate to the council and the management of the government what they want done. So, in the meantime, we have to do it and present as many ideas as we can and look at as many things as we can and see what we see as wrong and present it to them.”

John: “Do you see yourself as a voice for that silent group and segment of the county?”

Brian: “Temporarily, yes.”

Animating Those on the Sidelines
John: “Why do you think they are disengaged, still?”

Brian: “Years ago, there were two main things that we did, way before even my time, and that was you had your Sunday services or your church worship, whatever it was, synagogue, church, and then you had your town meetings, and your lives revolved around those two functions. So people were much more engaged in their religions and in what went on in their government, their towns, and how they functioned, and over the years we’ve drifted away from both. I think the people need to get back to [them] as easily as possible, and right now, with meetings that last for four or five hours, they’re not going to become engaged. There has to be a way to streamline it, tailor it in. Service Electric Video Innovations broadcasts [the meetings] over certain TV channels and the web to be able to see the meetings, but again, you’re having to tune in for the entire [county council] session, which is quite lengthy. I think there’s a way to consolidate what goes on and present [it] to the people without the media having to sell something, [via] a newspaper type of presentation to it, [but] just the facts, as what’s-his-name from ‘Dragnet’ would say it—a ‘Reader’s Digest’ condensed version type [of] thing. I think people might be more attuned to paying attention and getting more involved in [local government]. They could see what issues are there, what’s coming up, and then choose to be involved on those particular issues, but we have to find a way to bring it to them and reengage them.”

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