Failing to be open and transparent | Editorial
By DENNIS BOX
Covington Reporter Editor
July 12, 2012 · Updated 8:56 AM
Believe it or not there are days I am much grouchier than others. Two weeks ago my Mr. Grouchy meter was peaked in Maple Valley.
For a city that claims to be open and transparent, the team fell far short — at least from this grouchy editor’s point of view.
I had asked TJ Martinell, this newspaper’s reporter, to cover a hearing examiner proceeding over an appeal of a stop work order on a medical marijuana business, the Green Society Group.
He was told by the city staff the hearing was closed. I thought he might have misunderstood when he first told me, or maybe I hoped. I knew it was a closed-record hearing – meaning no new evidence can be introduced — but he called me and told me they would not let him into the hearing.
Behavior like this by a city makes reporters very suspicious people, and me incredibly cranky.
The next step was for TJ to begin asking some very pointed questions of the staff the following Monday and Tuesday.
The answers we received were considerably short of open and transparent.
Unfortunately I have bet on this horse far too many times.
To clarify a few issues without jumping into a lake of legal jargon, keeping TJ out of the hearing was not a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act because four council members, making a quorum, were not present. (That brings up the question if council members would have shown up what would have they been told? But that is for another bad day.)
The city’s May 26, 2010 “Rules of Procedure for Hearings” 2.16 states “Unless specifically required by law to be closed, appeal hearings are open to the public.” That seems very clear, but who knows. We are talking law, and I openly admit to being a law dummy.
Barring TJ from the hearing gave the appearance the city did not follow the Administrative Procedure Act. But lots of law talk makes me want to poke my eyes out with a knitting needle.
Let me try to put this in terms my failing brain can follow: A murder trial is an open proceeding. An appeal of a murder conviction is an open proceeding. What could possibly be so important to a city that an appeal to a hearing examiner needs to be closed to the public?
This stuff makes my head hurt.
After talking with TJ about how to proceed and the point of a potential story, I decided to cut to the core of the issue – the spirit of the phrase “open and transparent.”
In other words, the city did not live up to the spirit of open and accessible government.
I understand that no one really wants to be open and transparent. It is human nature. We are all like that, especially me.
I am sure I will hear many protests along the lines of, “We really are open, transparent and we really mean it.”
My answer is always the same. “I think that girl protests too much.”
There is a reason we have books with a bunch of laws written in very small type about freedom of speech and all those darn things we want for ourselves but no one else.
The problem is a government must at least keep up appearances. I know the inside game is a much different picture, which is why we have top editors like Kris Hill and ace reporters like TJ. The pretty image is never what it seems. I didn’t get to this part of the party by believing rosy rhetoric from any side.
TJ was not kept out of that hearing for malicious reasons, I know that. The staff was not trying to hide any big secret. Those making the decision simply didn’t know, but should have.
We did not get a clear answer about the hearing examiner proceeding until TJ heard from the city attorney, Wednesday, July 4. We do know the staff did not consult with the city attorney before telling TJ he could not attend the hearing.
We all have attorneys for a reason. They tell us all those hard things we don’t want to hear or believe.
Over years of covering many stories involving legal labyrinths, I have come to believe one thing — if you are not a lawyer, you do not know the law. No matter how brainy you think you are, the Minotaur is waiting inside that maze of dependent clauses. Law schools are there for a reason.
My unsolicited legal advice is to ask your attorney. A practicing lawyer actually knows and understand all those tangled tales we call laws.
And if you are going to keep one of my reporters out of a hearing or meeting, my best advice is you better make very certain you are right.
Now I will return to being Mr. Happy.
Contact Covington Reporter Editor Dennis Box at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-425-432-1209 (ext 5050).