Excuse me, Ms. Gilligan, Chris Cassidy is on the phone…

Chris Cassidy of the Salem News is delivering a case study every day in the paper on the importance and influence that a watchdog media can have on the governing class. As I’ve said all along, we need the media to play this role in a vibrant democracy. Perhaps he could go to Washington DC and give a seminar to his infatuated colleagues in the White House press corps?

Look at what he has accomplished in the course of two weeks;

May 26: Earlier pensions OK’d for 911 staff; Plan called “A raid on the retirement system”

Thanks to a subtle change in job title, some North Shore emergency dispatchers will be able to retire five years early under new rules approved by the Essex Regional Retirement Board. By reclassifying police and fire dispatchers as signal operators, the board recently allowed the group to retire with maximum benefits at age 60.

That puts them into an elite group of municipal workers who are eligible for retirement before age 65 – a benefit typically reserved for those with hazardous jobs, such as police officers, firefighters and electrical line workers.

June 1: Panel: DPW workers can retire at 55

Department of Public Works employees could retire at age 55 — 10 years early — under a bill at the Statehouse proposed by the Essex Regional Retirement Board and a Lynn lawmaker. The legislation would give DPW workers the same status as police officers and firefighters, who can retire at 55 because of the inherent dangers of their jobs.

It would also cost taxpayers, who’d be on the hook not only for the extra 10 years of each employee’s pension but for the added salaries and health insurance costs of their replacements.

June 8: Essex Retirement Board reports huge loss

The Essex Regional Retirement Board posted a 33 percent loss last year, the worst of the 107 retirement systems in Massachusetts.

The board made news last month for allowing dispatchers to retire at age 60 and for pushing legislation to let DPW workers retire at age 55. It’s also come under fire for its lobbying and travel expenses. Now its dramatic losses will have further implications for the taxpayers who help fund the system.

Much of the losses were racked up after the board invested last summer in mortgage-backed securities -the very instrument largely blamed for bringing down the U.S. economy.

They invested in mortgage backed securities last summer? What was the pitch? I know my house is on fire, I’ll give you a great deal if you buy it? Don’t fret, they have a sophisticated plan to get the money back. According to Chief Operating Officer Lilli Gilligan,

She said the board will call the city of Northampton — which had the best returns of 2008 — to find out which strategies it used.

Yea, that’s the ticket, chase last year’s winners! A brilliant strategy indeed!

June 10: Pressure builds on retirement board, as some want out

Town managers from about half the communities that pay into the Essex Regional Retirement Board will meet this week to discuss their concerns about the system and ways to reform it, including the possibility of pulling their funds out altogether.

But in a pre-emptive strike, the retirement board is calling its own meeting 90 minutes earlier with all members of its Advisory Council to broach similar topics on its terms.

The meetings come amid a turbulent time for the retirement board, which oversees the pensions of employees in Boxford, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Middleton, Topsfield and Wenham.

The key question is what are we going to do with this news? Are we going to read it and do nothing? Or are we going to read it and pick up the phone and let our voices be heard by the people in power? Are we going to whine and complain and then vote them all back for another term?

I spoke Sunday night with Salem News editorial page editor Nelson Benton, about the role of the media, the reporting of Chris Cassidy as well as the rot within state government and what it will take to change it. Nelson is 100% correct when he says,

When all is said and done, however, we get the quality of government we deserve. And by not demanding more of our elected representatives, we’ve encouraged them to act more like sheep than shepherds.

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