City Hall sits on offer made to City Manager

Posted 7/17/19

When Mayor Deborah Stinson and the City Council announced their top pick for City Manager had signed and returned Port Townsend’s job offer letter, we thought Port Townsend taxpayers would be …

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City Hall sits on offer made to City Manager

Posted

When Mayor Deborah Stinson and the City Council announced their top pick for City Manager had signed and returned Port Townsend’s job offer letter, we thought Port Townsend taxpayers would be interested to read it and asked for a copy.

City Hall said no.

We trust our elected officials to do their job, but citizens do not give up the right to verify what’s being done with our money and in our name. Democratic government relies on the consent of the governed, which presumes informed consent, not blind fealty.

It’s not just us saying it. In case after case, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the public’s right to know what government is up to.

Washington’s good open government law (RCW 42.30.110) gives elected officials leeway (not a requirement) to evaluate candidates in secret. Once a selection is made, salaries, wages and other working conditions are emphatically the public’s business.

We provided that citation July 10, but Mayor Stinson and Acting City Manager Nora Mitchell still refused to let any taxpayer read the offer letter and in six days of stalling and delaying, neither Stinson nor Mitchell produced a single citation to support the delay.

Instead, Mitchell, with Mayor Stinson’s full knowledge, asserted powers and privileges that don’t exist in law and that make a mockery of the comprehensive plan, which declares Port Townsend is devoted to “engagement” and other bedrock principles of responsive government.

Instad, Mitchell conjured a new extra-legal principle: Citizen review would be “premature” Mitchell wrote in response to our request. She’ll send us a copy later when City Hall feels the time is right.

In other words, City Hall wants citizen input when it’s too late to make any difference, a point we emphasized several times in demanding public access to public documents.

Monday night, City Hall, having consulted with City Attorney Heidi Greenwood, cited a section of Washington Law that allows them to “deliberate” in private.

So we asked if a correction is in order. After all, we reported last week the decision had been made and the offer accepted (signed) by the new City Manager.

That doesn’t sound like evaluation or deliberation. That sounds like an all-but-done deal.

Mitchell has advanced the idea that releasing the letter will harm the citizenry by hampering the city’s ability to drive a hard bargain.

Nonsense.

City officials have read the letter.

And so has the gentleman offered the job.

So whose prying eyes are Stinson and Mitchell worried about?

Yours.

This would have been an excellent time for interested citizens to take a look at the city’s offer and provide informed consent or dissent.

What’s the worst that could happen?

City Hall might not get rave reviews for its work.

The new City Manager might have to explain why he wants more money or time off than was offered.

Too bad.

Democracy, as Sir. Winston Churchill often said during messy debates or slow deliberations, is the worst possible form of government…except when you consider the alternatives.

We understand caution, but in erring, why not err on the side of the public’s right to know?

Opacity leads to distrust and our fine public officials will serve the public best with a policy of openness and engagement, not secrecy.

-Dean Miller

The Leader’s Editorials are the opinion of the Editorial Board: Publisher Lloyd Mullen; co-owner Louis Mullen; Editor Dean Miller and Leader readers who lobby The Leader. Each editorial is signed by the person who writes that editorial on behalf of the Editorial Board.

Comments

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Tom Thiersch

Your editorial suggests several violations of state law, including the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act.

Is that what you intended to say?

Saturday, July 20
HarveyW

I hope the readers and public at large appreciate the questions being asked in this article. One of our great protections is true journalism, following a story wherever it leads. It is my opinion that for many years this was lacking at the Leader. The relatively new ownership seems to be stepping up on issues such as this and Historic District parking, and the lack of any enforcement or plan by the No Term Limit City Council and Appointed Mayor. This has created a hushed up crisis most know of. The crucial aspect for the status quo to continue on as it has is public apathy. Please support your paper and demand the best from it and your local officials. My personal feelings after observing what I see as a political machine here in Port Townsend is that term limits and a fairly elected mayor are crucial. Achieving that or not, and demanding open government comes back to public apathy.

Wednesday, July 24
Tom Thiersch

The publisher and editorial writer have failed to respond to any of my questions, either here or in email, about their accusations of wrongdoing on the part of PT officials.

This leads me to conclude that they (1) didn't have facts to back their opinions and (2) didn't use the tools available -- specifically, the power of the Public Records Act to compel production of the relevant records.

Thursday, August 1
Dean Miller

Mr. Thiersch,

I'm sorry we didn't immediately answer your questions, but that's not disrespectful, it's the reality of our worklife here in the Leader newsroom. We were busy doing the work and that is not grounds for any of the conclusions you declared here.

So, for the record:

1. Rather than file a lawsuit, we sought to help City Hall focus on what we believed were the key elements of state law. While we could have filed a lawsuit alleging violation, we thought it better to "jaw, jaw" rather than "war, war."

2. While not conceding the public's right to see the documents, we argued in our meetings and emails with city officials that, even if Washington's law permits secrecy, no public purpose is achieved by withholding the letter (which Mauro had signed on July 3, it turned out.) The basic argument, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should."

3. We had the facts, filed our letter and through a flurry of follow-up emails from and to three different city officials, negotiated to the (delayed) outcome we desired: released of the offer letter.

In the future, I'd caution you against taking offense so easily.

In addition to phone calls, emails, text messages, Facebook posts and website comments, we respond to walk-in traffic and people bearding us when we're out and about in town.

We did not get right back to you and for that I apologize.

But if you're an openness in government advocate or expert, a post like your Aug. 1 item does nothing to serve the cause, quite the opposite.

It planted in the public mind a specious "conclusion" based on emanations and penumbras, not on any facts in evidence.

Thursday, August 15
Dean Miller

Mr. Thiersch,

I'm sorry we didn't immediately answer your questions, but that's not disrespectful, it's the reality of our worklife here in the Leader newsroom. We were busy doing the work and that is not grounds for any of the conclusions you declared here.

So, for the record:

1. Rather than file a lawsuit, we sought to help City Hall focus on what we believed were the key elements of state law. While we could have filed a lawsuit alleging violation, we thought it better to "jaw, jaw" rather than "war, war."

2. While not conceding the public's right to see the documents, we argued in our meetings and emails with city officials that, even if Washington's law permits secrecy, no public purpose is achieved by withholding the letter (which Mauro had signed on July 3, it turned out.) The basic argument, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should."

3. We had the facts, filed our letter and through a flurry of follow-up emails from and to three different city officials, negotiated to the (delayed) outcome we desired: release of the offer letter.

In the future, I'd caution you against taking offense so easily.

In addition to phone calls, emails, text messages, Facebook posts and website comments, we respond to walk-in traffic and people bearding us when we're out and about in town.

We did not get right back to you and for that I apologize.

But if you're an openness in government advocate or expert, a post like your Aug. 1 item does nothing to serve the cause, quite the opposite.

It planted in the public mind a specious "conclusion" based on emanations and penumbras, not on any facts in evidence.

Thursday, August 15