Nevertheless, we persist

Perseverance leads to success

Posted

The mayor and several members of Port Townsend’s upper crust have scolded me for the tone The Leader took last week when pressuring City Hall to release details of the contract with Port Townsend’s new city manager.

“Conspiracy theorist,” and “hack lawyer” were among the phrases meant to shame me.

In 30-plus years working on open government issues, I find that every citizen workshop or article about my efforts prompts some worker bee or small business person to privately thank me for pushing when they can’t. In the last week, I’ve already had several such calls and notes.

I’m not ashamed to be a pest, but perhaps I should explain my impatient pressure on government officials to make decisions out in the open.

We journalists do what others often cannot.

When refused access to public information, a non-journalist faces a hard decision:

Should I persist or give up?

For a worker bee, there’s this worry: If I persist, will my boss get a call?

A business person may wonder: Will my business suffer in its dealings with this agency? Will customers wrinkle their nose if they hear talk that I’m being “nosy?”

For both business owners and bees, there’s this problem:

Even if I can risk blow-back, I’m up against an official who pays nothing for their lawyer. Can I match that?

Many just give up, which makes life easier for the official blocking public access.

Mayors and city council members are people, too, so it’s understandable when they want to control the conversation. Once a document is out there, public comment goes where it goes and City Hall was afraid the great unwashed might scare John Mauro away by griping about his salary and benefits.

So while Mauro had the signed offer letter on July 4, almost a week before we asked to see it, you and I could not.

It took a full week of badgering the mayor, acting city manager, city clerk and city attorney to get that letter.

Hence my impatient tone. The law, they argued, permits City Hall to sit on the letter. Does that mean City Hall should?

Acting City Manager Nora Mitchell wants me to correct something I wrote last week, that they had not provided a citation for one point of their argument. Looking back through more than a dozen emails, I see she’s right. But that citation doesn’t require the withholding of the letter and I still argue it’s off-point: Both sides of the negotiation had seen the offer letter. Deliberation was done. Leverage was no longer a factor.

The letter we wanted was no more than an arm’s length from the mayor and acting city manager, resting on their desktop or computer or both.

A note to the fancy folk who prefer the obsequious sort of newspaper…

City government isn’t a tugboat, where the captain’s word is law.

The good ship Port Townsend is a d.e.m.o.c.r.a.c.y., where the lowliest mate (we call them “citizens” or “taxpayers”) has every right to ask for and see the payroll, the credit card statements, the purchase orders and even the council’s emails to one another and their tony chums.

So, when local bigshots seek to intimidate us with put-downs and name-calling, they join the long list of folks who side against small-d democracy and for capital-P Power... Their power as insiders against your power as outsiders.

(Dean Miller is Editor of The Leader. He’s the co-founder of Idahoans for Openness in Government, taught a dozen workshops on open meetings and records in partnership with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and represented the working press before the Idaho Legislature and in the U.S. courthouse in Boise.)

Comments

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HarveyW

Port Townsend, the real one of community and working people, are fortunate to have Dean Miller and his publisher Lloyd Mullen at the Leader. It is earning its name in spades. Few of us real folks are aware of the "insider" Port Townsend that has become so comfortable with itself that it abandons the people who place great trust in them. My opinion is that the "old" Leader was part of that.

Term Limits On City Council. Fairly elected Mayor. No more appointed tools. Unfortunately, respect needs to be demanded sometimes. Churchill said "You Cannot Reason with a Tiger When Your Head is in its Mouth." We have unchallenged paper tigers.

Wednesday, July 24
Tom Camfield

Back on the societal cusp between local provincialism and sophistication, I served on the City Council— through the 1970s, during which the state passed its Public Disclosure Act. It looked good up front, but where open meetings were concerned, the staters threw in an escape clause. The law allowed closed sessions during which to discuss employees or property acquisition. And that envelope got pushed a bit at both the city and county levels.

We council members always dealt with the mayor's preliminary budget in private (what with personnel matters being involved), and also not wanting to argue nickels and dimes of every department request in public. Such picayunish things as the postage allowance in the attorney's office, etc. , along with the major stuff. Don Hoglund was chairman of the finance committee, and we met in his pharmacy for long evening sessions—followed by drinks all around. No way, of course, the public ever knew what else we may have brought up, and I believe we had a majority of the council present there. We soon moved to public budget sessions—one result unfortunately being that the budget wound up as more of an arbitrary concoction by the mayor, due to council members' reluctance to haggle in public.

The committee also met behind closed doors to negotiate with a representative from the Teamsters Union. I"d like to have seen an unbiased news story on that bit. Mayor Joe Steve threw me off the finance committee for going nose to nose with the Teamster rep and challenging him to take us to court. That would have made a great little news story; I'd like to have seen that Teamster quoted in print. We also met privately to discuss the salary of the mayor's choice for an appointed clerk-treasurer.

I"ve been out of touch for a long time now, about 40 years, but I guess the law hasn't changed much and officials still have some privileged legal, if not always ethical, escapes. I read sometime recently about state legislators claiming extended exemptions from disclosure—and we all know how things are at the national level, especially with Donald's tax returns.

I work to redeem missteps of my somewhat oblivious younger years these days by coming down heavily on the side of the free press and its prime directive of informing the public—the public's right to know.

Wednesday, July 24
Mike Loriz

Good on you, Dean! Thanks for fighting the good fight! I hope your backside is not too sore.

I'm one of those silly people who served on gray boats for the Nav, on which democracy did not exist, but we were serving and fighting to preserve it. You are too, and I appreciate it. The fact that some of the powers that be do not appreciate it speaks volumes.

Thursday, July 25

Let's not bash the good old "Port Townsend Leader" Some of the best reporting, (award winning) was published in the Leader, long before the "new" guys came along. It didn't last for over a hundred years because it wasn't readable. I would still like to see more reporting on what's happening in Jefferson County & Port Townsend Government. Editorials about how great the paper is, doesn't help anyone. Constructive criticism is what effects change. And please, if you don't know how to spell a person's name, just ask them.

Sunday, July 28
Marge Samuelson

Don't know why my name didn't show up on that last post, but I guess you all knew who it was from.

Sunday, July 28
Mike Galmukoff

Mr. Miller,

Keep your thick skin nourished. It's an asset to all of us citizens, and to them I say, like it or not.

Tuesday, August 6