A few weeks back I wrote about how newspapers used to believe it was their obligation to watch paint dry—to keep a close eye on the process of local government.
Danny Westneat, a columnist for The Seattle Times, has written a piece that perfectly illustrates why such coverage is important. Last fall, at the end of a long, dry city council agenda in the Seattle suburb of Kent, he wrote, there was “a mysterious bit marked only as ‘Property Negotiations, as per RCW 42.30.110(1)(c).'” When that item came up, the mayor announced that the council was going into a closed executive session and he asked everyone in the audience to leave.
The few people in attendance accordingly left, and when the council returned from its secret session it quickly voted to sell a 10-acre public park to a developer, who planned to put a housing subdivision there.
No one learned of this until four months later, when the “lone newspaper left in the area, a weekly with only two reporters covering a city of 125,000, broke the news.” The news was that signs had gone up advertising a 64-home subdivision on land that had been a public park.
A lawyer hired by some local residents wrote to the council saying the park sale appeared to have broken two state laws requiring public hearings, and Westneat said he himself reported in January that the sale apparently violated an underlying deed and covenant on the park, which said the park land could be exchanged only for more park land.
City officials claimed to have gotten bad advice from county officials regarding the park deed. “Perhaps so,” Westneat wrote, “but that’s exactly the sort of issue that would have been raised in a public vetting. Public scrutiny isn’t just to humor people, it makes the work product better.”
Westneat actually covered Kent City Hall as a rookie reporter and remembers seeing three or four other reporters at council meetings, which are now covered by no one. Here’s how he ended his column:
“So how could a city sell a public park and nobody knows? The short answer is they didn’t tell anybody. That’s on them. But the longer answer is that we—the press and a society that no longer feels it needs the press—we’re no longer staying ’til the last gavel falls.”