- - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When Burnie Thompson sat down with CNN Politics just before the 2012 elections, the cable news channel’s host prefaced her first question by saying that she knew she was about to get a “snarky response.”

“Not snarky,” said Mr. Thompson. “Cheery. I come to bring you good news.”

Cheeriness, combined with civility, information and a sense of moral duty to speak up, has been a common thread for the retired Air Force captain throughout his 10-year watchdog career — as has the frustration he engenders from media and elected officials.

Today, Mr. Thompson is building a new model of local government accountability using social media to ruffle the feathers of the political establishment in Bay County, Fla., and hopes one day to teach others how to replicate the low-cost plan in their own communities.

But it wouldn’t be possible if he hadn’t been fired.

In 2007, Mr. Thompson landed an FM talk radio gig in Panama City Beach, Fla. His accountability approach and gift of gab were a perfect fit for the panhandle station’s conservative radio platform.

A favorite target was the area’s congressman, Rep. Allen Boyd, a self-described conservative Democrat whose voting record belied that description.

Mr. Thompson championed Mr. Boyd’s 2010 opponent, Steve Southerland, a Bay County businessman who had never held public office. Mr. Southerland won an upset victory, riding the Tea Party wave of 2010.

Then Mr. Thompson turned his accountability spotlight on Mr. Southerland.

“We got in a tiff about that,” he said.

Mr. Thompson was told by management to stop saying Mr. Southerland’s name on the air in reference to his watchdog news coverage. He refused.

In 2013, Mr. Thompson began criticizing Gov. Rick Scott. The Republican chief executive had suspended Liberty County Sheriff Nicholas Finch without pay over a small-town Second Amendment-related dispute.

Mr. Thompson was incensed, as were many conservative and libertarian groups throughout the state.

A deputy had arrested a local man, Floyd Parrish, for carrying a gun without a permit. The sheriff later released Mr. Parrish on the grounds that he was upholding his right to bear arms.

A state attorney levied charges of official misconduct and falsifying public records. The case became a flash point in a larger gun debate, and Mr. Scott appeared to side with prosecutors. A jury would later clear Sheriff Finch of all charges.

When Mr. Thompson invited the embattled sheriff to share his story on his WYOO radio show, it was the last straw. The moment the show ended, Mr. Thompson was fired.

“They said I was going to end up hurting Republicans and they can’t have that,” he said.

After more than eight years on the air, Mr. Thompson was at a crossroads. After giving podcasting a shot, he eventually built a Facebook following by broadcasting a show from a rented office that he turned into a studio.

It was ideal for covering local events.

“I go to every single city council and county commission meeting and livestream them,” Mr. Thompson said.

After getting a tip that Panama City Beach Mayor Mike Thomas was using his position to bully neighbors, Mr. Thompson confronted the mayor during the public comment period of a city council meeting.

“Have you ever directed either of the code enforcers orally, in-person to drive through your neighborhood and look for violations?” he asked. “If your answer is ‘no,’ I’d like to ask you, if I were to ask both of your code enforcers on record, would their answer be the same as yours?”

Mr. Thomas chose his words carefully.

“I probably have,” the mayor said. “I don’t remember doing it. Have I personally directed somebody to go do something like that? Not to my knowledge.”

It was a legalistic response that gave some of Mr. Thompson’s 6,600 Facebook followers and more than 21,600 Twitter followers the impression that the mayor had made a slick admission of guilt.

When Mr. Thompson learned that the city manager’s girlfriend was allegedly slated to receive $175 an hour, and her company $23,000 from Panama City taxpayers for two presentations about how Panama City could save money, he took to Facebook and posted a three-minute video showing Mr. Thomas refusing to hear public comments prior to the vote of approval.

“Our local officials have gotten too brazen, and it’s common in smaller communities,” he said. “If the local media would ask these questions, I wouldn’t have to.”

Mr. Thompson is striking a chord with Facebook fans, particularly in the 35-54 age group.

“I want to replicate this across Florida. What’s more powerful: Being a national radio host or local show host encouraging people to hold their local officials accountable?” Mr. Thompson said.

“That’s real grass-roots power,” he said.

And that’s why Burnie Thompson is a Washington Times unsung hero.

• William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org, a nonprofit journalism project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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