President Trump may refer to many in the media as “the enemy of the American People,” but at least he hasn’t billed them for talking to those in his administration.
So, we’ll give Langley Mayor Tim Callison credit for ingenuity.
The mayor of south Whidbey Island’s “Village by the Sea” last week emailed an invoice for $64 to the South Whidbey Record, billing the newspaper for time that City Attorney Mike Kenyon spent answering a reporter’s questions. The reporter sought information about a proposal to name Langley as a sanctuary city.
The move was quickly criticized by advocates for open government, journalists and public officials, including at least two Langley city council members, the Record reported over the weekend. And the Record, in an editorial published Saturday, said it was respectfully declining to pay the bill.
Left scratching their heads, the Record’s staff called around and asked if any other local governments were charging for interviews. Representatives for Everett, Coupeville, Port Townsend, Anacortes and Island County said they don’t bill the media for staff time.
Callison defended his decision in an email to the newspaper:
“As a reminder, the City Attorney works for the City of Langley and is not a free public resource,” Callison wrote. “Additionally, as our legal firm, there is a attorney client privilege in place that prevents disclosure of discussions between the City and them as our legal representative.”
Langley’s mayor is misinformed on both points.
True, a city attorney, or any employee of a public agency, isn’t a free public resource, but the Record’s reporters weren’t asking for legal advice on how to beat a parking ticket. The reporters sought information on any advice the city’s legal counsel had provided the city regarding the proposal; they did so in their role as a source of news for the city’s more than 1,000 residents.
Any resident has the right to that information, as does the newspaper that covers that city.
When a Record reporter called Langley’s attorney seeking any written recommendations to the council on the sanctuary proposal, Kenyon responded in an email that he had no “non-privileged” material on the issue.
But attorney-client privilege doesn’t shield city officials from their duty to inform the press and public on most issues.
State and local governments are allowed specific exceptions to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act when they need to close their discussions to the public. Among those, they can meet in “executive session” when discussing sale, lease or acquisition of property when public knowledge could affect the price; when reviewing negotiations for contracts that could affect the cost; when considering personnel issues; and when discussing potential litigation.
The mayor’s new journalism tax apparently has only been levied this one time, which might indicate it’s more pique than policy. The Record reported a tense relationship between the paper and the mayor following a Feb. 25 editorial that was critical of Callison for his handling of the sanctuary issue and his threat to resign if the city council adopted the ordinance.
Regardless, it reflects poorly on a mayor who is either thin-skinned, badly misinformed on his responsibilities to keep the public informed of the city’s business, or both.
Nor should the residents of Langley have much confidence in a city attorney if that legal counsel failed to discourage a public official from taking such actions.
Everyone understands that municipal governments are not rolling in revenue, but levying a tax on staff time for a legitimate request for information is not productive. Being responsive toward the media, who are acting as the public’s representatives, actually can be cost-effective for local government. And it beats getting tangled in a lawsuit over the state’s sunshine laws.
Any cash-strapped government that might entertain following Callison’s lead should reconsider.
We will thank Mayor Callison for his timing.
He billed the Record just prior to Sunshine Week, March 12-18, which brings attention to state and federal access laws regarding public records and meetings.
An earlier version misstated the name of the mayor of Langley.