Mimicking the open door policy | Editor's Note
Last updated 12/20/2020 at 4:19pm
Transparency is definable, even though it is achieved differently by various agencies. In fact, Ballotpedia has a 10-point checklist on transparency. That list includes something Mill Creek just does not do – list contact information for city council members.
In my current role as Mill Creek editor, I can't help but compare to Snohomish, and various other agencies I have covered. Can't help it, because Mill Creek is pretty difficult to connect with, and my lovely, beautiful hometown of Snohomish was always so accessible.
When the Snohomish folk saw me coming, some would likely wince, others not. Ah, nostalgia. It is fun to look back on pre-pandemic days.
Offering the benefit of the doubt – we are in a pandemic – hoop jumping is now the thing that ties us all to chairs-and-screens as we update the "what's next" and "how do I do this" aspects of COVID-now, and COVID-minutes-from-now. I feel the pain of information gatherers on the providing-end of my job – it is no picnic to figure out how to get it all done, when a dozen things arise as top priority. Rules keep changing. New needs arise for the public. And, in general, everything feels like it is racing by and needing a good hard anchoring.
Other agencies find a way to anchor their public information processes, and Mill Creek should too.
This week, the city had a COVID-19 update to provide for the newspaper. To an outsider, that may sound pretty cheeky – why do I consider my needs so important when there are so many other things for a city to manage? Reason: they are not my needs. They are the readers' needs. While the public cannot currently enter the city building, making it a seemingly low-priority to tell the public about a COVID-19 issue, that is just not the point.
What they cannot tell me is news. What they can – news. What occurs in a chat that I don't know about yet – news. Numbers can likely be released and if there is a limit on what they can and can't tell Beacon readers, then they should tell me that.
As a parallel mindset, in a public records request, the city has to cite the court case that allows them to withhold information that is requested from them: Ah, freedom. America is just that awesome.
News does not operate on a need-to-know basis. That is what private industry operates on, and private businesses have every right to operate that way – protecting information that is on a need-to-know basis for the public. But much of what happens in city business is not private, and it does not fall under "need to know." Citizens in an open government culture operate on a right to know, giving each of us a hand in our government.
Examples abound of the nearby agencies that manage to remain open and transparent to the public, in spite of the weight of seemingly higher priorities. Fire District 7, now Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue, has a culture of openness that is obvious when one asks for information. With COVID-19 as a top priority for them, they returned a records request to me within days. They could have stretched it out to 30 or more.
On the city website in Snohomish, the 10-point transparency list is adhered to: Snohomish city officials list contact information on their website. That allows both citizens and reporters to cross reference who was speaking in a public meeting, to ask for an expansion or clarification on those comments. The practice creates a two-way dialogue with the public.
Monroe was easy to get to as well, with public officials from various departments seemingly unlimited in their freedom to call back a reporter, for any story. Monroe currently has a link to their website called "Monroe listens," to open the door to public comment. While I covered that beat, I was able to schedule with the finance lead, talk to the mayor on a fairly regular basis, or get the public works people on the phone – anytime I called or emailed and even last minute.
I prefer to avoid last-minute information requests when I can, but the news business being one of immediate updates, I appreciated the ease at which I gained information from those beats.
In Mill Creek, every contact must be chased down through various other people.
And while a lot of process and information is announced in public meetings or posted on websites by Mill Creek, opportunity for inquiry is tough to get. It feels a lot like a city that is bent on wearing people down so they'll go away – but maybe not. Maybe they just need a better plan.
Does the city have more than one COVID-positive employee? Not really sure yet, but I have asked and I hope to either get that for the reader, or some interesting information on why I cannot: laws are fun. We like writing about them.
Are there more questions to ask? I shrug. It's hard to imagine until you've had enough conversations to know what you don't know.
If the city of Mill Creek is too busy to provide information in a timely manner, or on a regular basis, it should find a way by mimicking the agencies that are more transparent than they are.
Open public meetings are not enough to claim transparency is occurring. If the city wants to know what truly open government looks like, it has some closeby examples to view.