We need to talk | Editor's Note
Last updated 12/11/2020 at 11:58am
Secrecy and privacy are different things, but sometimes they get muddled.
We apply that precise understanding in the news business: an eye on that particular distinction. We are trained to avoid letting it stop us – that notion that we can get some things and not others. That push and practice creates a sense of respect for what is truly private, legally protected, and reasonably out of view.
Getting information from any city can be arduous at times, and for good reason. People are busy. The roles of a city of official are complex, requiring adherence to various rules and regulations that are currently in flux to deal with a pandemic.
I get the sense that every public official at the city has a clear understanding of open government, and a deep respect for it as a theory in Mill Creek. But it seems transparency is not a widespread culture there. I compare it to news beats that are tuned to open access.
In Snohomish, a woman named Judith Kuleta was running for a City Council seat back in 2019. She was a fire chief at one point in her career, so she had worked with the press during times when the press, and its public, were pretty much out to get her, from my view of it.
She was campaigning to be elected to a council seat, and she scheduled a coffee meeting with me, knowing I was taking notes. She trusted when
we discussed “off the record” that it would be honored (and it was).
She kept coming back, agreeing to talk to me, even when the subject matter was controversial.
Another Snohomish leader, Linda Redmon, once thanked me for making her “sound good” in a news article. I told her, “No, you sounded good, and I wrote it down.” Steve Dana, a longtime Snohomish resident and councilmember, always picks up the phone or calls back – always. I called once I left the beat, and he was still available. He will answer any question. No exceptions. No polished responses. No waiting until he figures out what you want to hear.
Those leaders take chances, and offer time they likely do not have – because they know bold is better than timid, and truth is the cure for grapevining.
Another example of open government culture, achieved under enormous pressure and scarce time, is the Joint Information Commission: knowing that reporters would have questions every week, Snohomish County and its health district made a public-access plan.
Via Zoom, reporters can hear an update that the county presents, ask specfic questions, and gain access to top officials. It only takes one hour out of their week, and because it is offered remotely, they can quickly move onto other priorities rather than driving time.
The leaders who shine a light on facts, figures, and processes know that whatever the truth is, it won’t change if you refuse to say it out loud, and public blowback burns off faster when the path ahead is made clear.
The leaders who practice open government messaging know it is rather stark at times. Direct. Whether they “look good” or not is a gamble they embrace.
I am paid to be pesky, relentless, and inquisitive. I know my role at times, from the perspective of a city leader, may feel it is targeted and obstructionary. That I am just there to get in the way. But the view from inside a newspaper is that we are there for the readers. So polished content or a long wait for the reveal – that is just not our thing.
I have, more than once, requested information I know I cannot have, legally, due to its executive session status, or some other legal limit. I do that because it is the charge of the city to redact, officially decline, and cite a court case: A document with redactions can be useful. In some beats, that has evoked a phone call and that phone call can lead to more stories people may want to read.
We write what we see, in news. In Mill Creek, we are in a time when more inquiry is necessary, and it seems at times less opportunity for inquiry available.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Some agencies have adapted to assure public access.
The culture in Mill Creek needs a reset. It is clear that some individuals are doing a fine job being open, clear and accessible. But without a transparent culture, the steady flow of information will not occur.
Mill Creek public officials should find a way to start a regular two-way conversation with its public, to answer the questions they have, and to keep that conversation going. If there are challenges to that – COVID, staffing limits, lawsuits and the like – selective silence is not the answer.