In an unprecedented move, Langley Mayor Tim Callison began a new practice of billing the media for speaking with a city employee.
On Thursday, Callison emailed the South Whidbey Record, sister newspaper of the Whidbey News-Times, a $64 invoice for time city attorney Mike Kenyon spent in February responding to a reporter’s question.
Callison said the “city attorney’s time is not free” and that the newspaper should reimburse city hall.
“As a reminder, the City Attorney works for the City of Langley and is not a free public resource,” Callison wrote. “Additionally, as our Legal Firm, there is a Attorney Client Privilege in place that prevents disclosure of discussions between the City and them as our Legal Representative.”
The mayor’s move is being criticized by champions of open government, attorneys and elected Langley officials alike, describing it as “unusual” and “ludicrous.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said it is both “absurd” and “bizarre” to bill the media for contacting the city attorney.
“I have never, ever heard of any such thing anywhere,” said Nixon, who is also a Kirkland city councilman and former Washington state representative.
“I can’t think of any circumstance when the news media would have to pay for any city staff’s time, whether they’re contracted staff or in-house staff,” Nixon said.
“The idea that they would charge for the time to do that is ridiculous.”
“It’s ludicrous,” said Fred Obee, executive director of the Washington Newspapers Publishers Association. “On what planet of reality is this even coming from?”
Reporters across the United States routinely call city attorneys for clarification on proposed legislation, said Obee. It’s not only their constitutional right, but the public’s as well.
“Any citizen has the right to inquire about a city government’s policies,” Obee said. “You would think the city would want to encourage that free-flow of information.”
He added Callison’s claim of attorney-client privilege does apply in certain circumstances, but is not a blanket privilege shielding lawyers from speaking with the media.
Billing reporters for time spent speaking to a city employee, even a contracted one, is inappropriate and should be discussed by the entire council, said Langley council members Thomas Gill and Rene Neff.
“It’s not something I would endorse,” Gill said. “Free press is one of the best things we have in this country, and free access to government is one of the best things we have in the state. Something here doesn’t feel right, and I want to get to bottom of it.”
“I think that’s absolutely not OK,” Neff said. “I think it’s really important for the public and the media to ask questions, especially right now.”
“Wow,” she said.
Langley Councilman Bruce Allen agrees with Callison, however. He said he doesn’t think it’s “right” for the city to pick up a tab for an unsanctioned interview.
“He can contact the attorney if he wants to, but I don’t understand why we have to pay for it,” Allen said. “It’s not doing anything for us.”
Because the reporter isn’t a Langley resident and doesn’t pay Langley taxes, Allen said he shouldn’t be afforded the same rights as city residents.
Councilwoman Ursula Shoudy and Councilwoman Dominique Emerson declined comment.
The cities of Everett, Coupeville, Port Townsend, Anacortes as well as Island County confirmed they have no such practice of charging reporters to talk to employees.
“We’re always grateful that you contact us, because that’s how we communicate with our citizens,” said Elaine Marlow, budget director for Island County.
“I can’t ever recall Island County doing that,” she added. “Wow.”
Island County District Court Judge Bill Hawkins, former city attorney for Oak Harbor and a former Island County prosecutor, said the media was never charged for speaking with him while he was in either position.
“Certainly not while I was there,” Hawkins said, adding he’s unaware of the practice being done anywhere else.
Hawkins is currently the district court judge in Oak Harbor.
On Feb. 9, The Record reporter contacted Langley’s attorney seeking the law firm’s written recommendation to Langley recommending the city not adopt sanctuary city status.
“Thanks for the call, but I’m sorry to report that I don’t have any non-privileged written material prepared on this issue,” Kenyon said in an emailed response.
Tensions between the mayor and the newspaper seemed to heighten following a Feb. 25 editorial critical of Callison for his handling of the sanctuary city discussions and his threat to resign if the council adopted a sanctuary city ordinance.
Earlier this week, Callison requested the newspaper contact him only at City Hall and not on his personal cell phone.
Previously, The Record corresponded regularly with Callison on his cell phone.
Obee said the mayor’s actions appear “punitive” in response to critical coverage.
“It’s so far out of the normal behavior of any elected official that I don’t know how it can be viewed in any other way,” Obee said.
Gill, Emerson and Neff agree Callison’s actions sound “retaliatory.”
“People need to be able to ask questions, even ones (elected officials) don’t like or are uncomfortable answering,” Neff said.
“This is definitely something we need to have a discussion about,” Gill said.
“It feels inappropriate to say the least.”