You’ve probably never heard of Kevin Brookman and there is a reason for that. But to talk about him, it is important first to know about the city he covers, Hartford. Wandering through that city, one gets the sense that Hartford is simultaneously on the cusp of greatness and the brink of disaster.
There was a time when “For Lease” signs downtown seemed to outnumber customers, but business now seems to be on the uptick. While it remains to be seen whether it will be a boondoggle or a lynchpin in the city’s transportation infrastructure, construction on the Hartford-New Britain busway projects the sense that things are on the move.
Despite signs of progress, Hartford is still a city of poverty where dysfunction is normal. It was reported last week, for example, that the state taxpayers will be on the hook for $80 million in borrowing to renovate Weaver High School, a 370,000 square-foot building intended to educate 2,000 students but during the 2012-13 school year hosted only 450 kids.
Most recently, however, watching dysfunction at work in Hartford requires a visit to City Hall.
That is where Kevin Brookman, a local activist and blogger who posts his work at We the People, heard rumors about the questionable use of city credit cards by the staff. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Brookman requested a host of documents related to the incident, including the itemized receipt for a New Year’s Eve celebration at Max Downtown for the Mayor, several members of his staff, spouses, and other friends. More than $700 of the celebration’s pricetag ended up on the city credit card of Chief of Staff Jared Kupiec.
Since then, Mr. Brookman has broken the news about a suspicious car accident involving Mr. Kupiec, the revocation of Mr. Kupiec’s access to the Hartford Police Department’s gym, and that Kupiec’s resignation from City Hall included a $36,000 payout for vacation time earned during something called a “run out.”
Did you miss seeing these stories in the Hartford Courant? That is because Mr. Brookman, despite having a full-time job and other commitments, has proved himself to be far more adept at covering news in the capital city than its flagship newspaper. Instead, the Courant has mostly covered the still-unfolding scandal without mentioning Brookman’s role in bringing it to light.
Even if the Courant judged Mr. Kupiec’s troubles as unworthy of coverage, the broader issue of city credit card usage remains largely unexplored. Why does it take so many dinners, flights, and hotel rooms to lead Hartford? Beyond the Human Resources-speak explanations of “run out,” when will the article appear that explores how someone can walk away from a $100,000 a year job with a $36,000 check for unused vacation time earned while on vacation?
Holding government officials accountable for their actions is both easier and more difficult than ever before. The widespread availability of Internet access, free platforms for publishing on the web, and — despite efforts to dilute it — the still-powerful tool that is the Freedom of Information Act all serve to provide ordinary citizens with enough access to be their very own government watchdogs. News organizations that fail to adapt to the new trend of information proliferation do so at their own risk. Requiring reporters to engage readers on social networks is helpful in building an online audience and online advertising revenue, but it takes real shoe leather reporting to keep people coming back without being asked.
If Kevin Brookman can do the research on his own, the Courant can and should do it as well. The relationship between traditional media and the newfangled citizen watchdogs is still being defined, but the “steadfast refusal to acknowledge” approach will surely seem ridiculous in the long run.
Respect is owed to Mr. Brookman for doing in his spare time the tasks that others are paid to do full time. He might not get the credit he is due, but he is providing a valuable service to his community.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com