In Mill Creek, blurred lines between media and government

MILL CREEK — City Hall is tangled up with a newspaper here.

The mayor works part-time as a reporter. Her day-job boss, a Snohomish County councilman, writes guest columns for the same paper. A city councilman who is a candidate for the Legislature is paid by the paper to publish his opinions. The city manager, however, had to pay the paper to get his published.

The public footed part of the bill for a rhetorical battle between the city manager and people running for elected office. It played out last year in the pages of the bi-monthly Mill Creek View, which until recently was the only newspaper focusing on the city.

This co-mingling of government and media has been an elephant in the City Council’s chambers since the 2013 election.

Mayor Pam Pruitt covers City Hall as a reporter at the Mill Creek View. She is sometimes called the city editor. She said that’s just a title the paper’s owner gave her to make up for her small paychecks. Unlike an editor, she said, she has no say in what goes into the paper. She sometimes disagrees with its content.

Pruitt reports on city news, even when she is involved in the story as mayor. She said she started writing for the paper around 2010. When she launched her campaign for City Council, she said, she stopped writing editorials and opinion pieces in the spirit of fairness. She continued writing her articles but insists it is not “real reporting.”

“It’s just a way of getting the information out,” she said. “I don’t write up what happens until after it happens. By then it’s a fact.”

Pruitt also works as a legislative aid for Snohomish County Councilman Terry Ryan.

Until this year, Ryan, a former Mill Creek councilman and mayor himself, wrote a regular column on city news for the View. He has since switched to contributing guest columns on county happenings.

City Councilman Mark Harmsworth, meanwhile, has taken over Ryan’s Mill Creek-focused column. Harmsworth, an Amazon manager, is also running for state representative.

Last September, the View’s owner, Fred Fillbrook, and Pruitt, before she was elected mayor, published a series of articles about an idea the city staff had brought to the council the previous April — to build a $20 million civic center. Ryan, who had resigned in September after 17 years on the City Council but had not yet been elected to the County Council, also commented on the issue in his columns.

The View detailed the civic-center concept the city manager had drawn up. A quote from Adolf Hitler appeared under one story: “How fortunate for leaders that men do not think. Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it and eventually they will begin to believe it.”

Pruitt contributed to the series of articles but said she disagreed with the Hitler quote.

“If I had any say in what went in there, that wouldn’t have been there,” she said. “See why I’m not the city editor?”

As the election neared, the civic center plan became a controversial campaign topic.

City Manager Ken Armstrong decided to spend $2,900 in public money to place a series of nine columns in the View. He said initially he saw each $322 column as an opportunity to provide information to the public.

Armstrong first asked for free space in the View and offered to take over the city news column. Both requests were denied by the View. The paper said he would have to pay for space.

Through his series of articles, Armstrong said, he sought to clear up what he saw as inaccuracies in reporting by the View. He said the View’s reporters never talked to city staff to get its side of the story.

“There were gross inaccuracies,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong stopped writing and paying for placement of the columns after the election. But the controversy wasn’t over for him. The election led to a shift of power on the council when new members, including Pruitt, took their seats in January.

Meanwhile, Ryan was elected to the $105,885-a-year Snohomish County Council position. Pruitt joined his staff and earns $69,626 annually there. Her Mill Creek City Council colleagues elected her mayor, a position that pays her another $8,400.

In the November election, Harmsworth was not up for re-election. He filed this month to run for representative of the state’s 44th Legislative District.

In February, Harmsworth said he wanted to discuss the city manager’s role in communicating with the media. Those media policy talks continued in March and April.

During a public comment session at one City Council meeting, Bart Masterson, who turned out of his own council seat in the November election, questioned the timing of the talk about a media policy. Another bi-monthly newspaper was opening, it turned out. the Mill Creek Beacon, which launched in April, would compete with the View.

“Now, that tells me that all of a sudden somebody got scared,” Masterson said. “They got scared because their bully pulpit is now, grievously I hope, threatened.”

Just before the Beacon launched, Harmsworth and Pruitt unsuccessfully pushed to get the city manager to agree not to talk to the press or to sign any media contracts without the council’s approval.

Armstrong, who earns $144,200 annually, refused to agree to that. He insisted that communicating with the media is essential to running the city.

At a meeting late last month, several people spoke against the move to compel Armstrong to stop communicating with the press, calling it an attempt to “muzzle” the city manager. Masterson said he was appalled.

“If you don’t like what he says after he says it, fire him,” Masterson said. “But let him say it.”

Said another citizen, Wil Nelson: “It’s quite dismaying to me to see the advent once again of political vendetta and vile, venomous type talk regarding the election. The election is over and people should get over it.”

Former Councilwoman Mary Kay Voss, who lost her seat years ago to Terry Ryan, said that it was ludicrous for the city to spend money to place Armstrong’s columns in the View. She took Pruitt and Harmsworth to task, calling their articles self-serving.

“That forced our city manager to take his time and energy and our tax dollars to make sure the facts were presented clearly, forthrightly and with no personal agenda at all,” she said. “By the way, that isn’t a newspaper. A newspaper will print the truth.”

In the View’s account of that City Council meeting, no byline appeared to indicate the author. Pruitt said she wrote it but decided to take her byline off the story. If she puts her name on her stories, she said, people accuse her of seeking publicity. If she leaves her name off, people think she’s hiding something.

“Do they just not want people to know what’s going on?” she said. “I’m definitely about open government and letting people know.”

During Pruitt’s campaign last fall, the View put a disclaimer on her stories. Pruitt said she would consider resuming that practice of making it transparent to readers that the mayor is providing the paper’s City Council coverage.

The council has dropped the media policy issue. Pruitt said most of the people complaining about it were former council members who lost their seats in previous elections.

“All it is is drama. There’s nothing to it,” she said. “I’m not going to stop working hard because of their drama.”

So the mayor, another City Council member and a member of the County Council continue to write for the View.

And while the city no longer pays for placement of the city manager’s columns in the paper, Armstrong is continuing to write articles for Mill Creek Living, a quarterly magazine — which costs city taxpayers $16,000 a year.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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