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.)