United States Project

Local Washington paper balks at bill for interview with city attorney

March 14, 2017
Houses along the coast of Langley, Washington

Late last week, the mayor of Langley, Washington, asked The South Whidbey Record to compensate the city $64 for an interview with the city’s attorney. The Record’s coverage of the bill “exploded online” over the weekend, and the mayor backed off yesterday, calling the situation a misunderstanding and saying he was just trying to get the paper’s attention.

That he did, said Justin Burnett, editor of the Record, when I caught up with him over the phone. But Burnett isn’t convinced the mayor was just messing around.

“I just can’t believe that if I had sent him $64 he would have sent it back and said ‘No, I was just kidding,’” Burnett told me. “I bet he would have cashed my check.”

CJR’s United States Project has documented some municipal media mischief over the years: There was the city in Montana that sued its local paper just for filing an open records request, and the city in California that sued an operator of a local watchdog site for copyright infringement after he posted video of council meetings online. But invoicing reporters for interviewing someone who speaks for the city is next-level nonsense.

“Obviously, it would have set a terrible precedent for newspapers if we agreed to pay a bill for just simply talking with a publicly funded city worker,” Burnett says.

Langley Mayor Tim Callison emailed The South Whidbey Record last Thursday morning. In his email, Callison wrote that “the City Attorney works for the City of Langley and is not a free public resource,” and asking its reporter to “please remit the amount of $64 to the City.”

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The Seattle Times reported that, as is the case with many small towns, “the attorney for Langley is not a direct employee but bills the city for time spent”—in this case, $320 per hour, from a city budget line capped at $50,000 per year. Included in a late February bill to the city, Langley’s contracted attorney noted a charge of $64 for correspondence with a reporter.

That charge was sent along to The South Whidbey Record—a small, twice-weekly newspaper that serves a small island community in the Puget Sound. Instead of paying up, the Record played up the news, quoting incredulous open government advocates and public officials.

“It feels inappropriate to say the least,” one city council member told the paper. “Wow,” said another. “It’s ludicrous,” said Fred Obee, executive director of the Washington Newspapers Publishers Association. “On what planet of reality is this even coming from?” (The paper did find one council member who agreed with the mayor. His logic: Because the reporter doesn’t live in Langley, he shouldn’t have the same rights as city residents.)

Meanwhile, on its Saturday opinion page, a South Whidbey Record editorial put the screws to the mayor, who was elected in 2015. “We respectfully decline” to pay, read the item. “We suggest the mayor instead send the bill to 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC. That’s the address of the National Archives Building, the official home of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

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All that started Friday. On Sunday, a local TV station picked up the news. Journalist Twitter lit up from coast to coast.

By Monday evening, according to a story that led The South Whidbey Record homepage, the mayor had changed his tune:

In a telephone interview, the mayor said that by the time he billed the newspaper last week he’d already gotten the city attorney to waive the fee and was just trying to make a point. If the newspaper had just called him for an additional interview after receiving the bill, it all would have been made clear, Callison said. “If we’d have talked, I’d have said I was just doing it to get your attention.”

The mayor told the paper he regretted not being more clear that he wasn’t actually requesting the paper to pay up; rather, he was just trying to make sure the paper knew talking with the city’s attorney can be costly. But, as the paper noted, the mayor had doubled down in a Sunday letter to the editor, a Facebook post, and in an email to city residents.

“The city treasurer…received an invoice for the time the attorney spent with the reporter, and knowing it was not pre-approved, questioned it,” the mayor wrote in his letter. “As is her fiscal job to do. To not collect the charges would be an illegal gift of public funds.”

Editor Burnett told me he sees the mayor’s about-face as proof of the power of the press. He said he never would have paid the $64, and while he doubts the issue would have wound up in court, he would have fought it if it had. The mayor, he believes, is still smarting from a pointed February 25 editorial that criticized his leadership and called him thin-skinned. (The mayor has said that’s not the case.)

In the end, Burnett sees the mayor’s move as an intimidation tactic that backfired.

“We got, essentially, a bill trying to in a way bully us into backing off, and we did the opposite and made sure to tell that story,” he said. “And people heard it. And now it’s a big misunderstanding— which is whatever. Whether it’s a misunderstanding or whether he’s backing off doesn’t matter. …The most important thing here is that this isn’t going to happen.”

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.