Communication Builds Our Community

A Free Press Serves as a Watchdog on Government and Politicians

Government is complicated. Elected officials, even those responsible for leading a city such as Lake Wales with its billion-dollar budget, face a multitude of questions and issues. It is certainly not within the capacity of any one individual to have total awareness of every matter that must be decided.

The role of the press as a watchdog over government is a long-established principle, one that has for nearly 250 years of American history served to keep politicians on the straight and narrow path.

William J. Brennan, Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, expressed it well when he stated that “Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

While preferring to avoid such “sharp attacks,” news coverage by this organization has, on more than one occasion, pointed out potential missteps or shortcomings that could have been costly to taxpayers. We judge that to be a public service which is the duty of a free press.

We have covered several contentious issues, including restrictions placed upon the rights of the people to address the city commission, and proposed developments which some found inappropriate. Some politicians may resent that coverage, but that does not relieve our duty to report.

We have previously alerted city officials to the ill-considered purchase of a parcel of land for an inflated price without testing the former gas-station site for potentially-costly environmental contamination. The purchase was then abandoned.

When such issues are brought to the attention of government officials, they have a distinct choice of reactions: address the issue, investigate it, and resolve it, or attack the messenger.

Unfortunately in the latest instance, Lake Wales Mayor Jack Hilligoss has chosen the latter path.

We recently reported a series of questions related to a $1.2 million contract between the City of Lake Wales and a corporation responsible for the operation of a business incubator. Shortcomings in the operations raised doubt about the competency of the private firm’s advice to “member” businesses relying on their advice, each of whom are also paying to be a part of the incubator, above and beyond the city’s generous funding.

We consider that reporting to be a service to both city leadership, the citizens, and the valued businesses depending upon accurate and complete guidance to grow and prosper.

Rather than addressing the issues, Hilligoss chose to defend the corporation and attack the questioner. That may be the result of his personal relationship with the CEO of the corporation. See related story.

In his vehement attacks he has used not only his office as mayor and the public forum of a city commission meeting, but also the pulpit of the church he leads, from where he launched a diatribe against “wickedness” in a widely-circulated video.

He used “wicked” to describe this publication, an individual associated with it, a local political club, and “prominent citizens” whom he has evidently placed on his enemies list.

He further accused this news organization of “attacking” his fellow commissioners and allies Danny Krueger and Daniel Williams. That was a clear misstatement of fact, as a search of our news archives will attest. Stories mentioning the two have been few, and factual.

The issuance of untrue statements by a politician is always cause for reaction, more so when it involves the politicization of a valued religious institution and tiptoes along the narrow edge of defamation.


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