In an unprecedented move, Langley Mayor Tim Callison this week began a new practice of billing the media for time spent speaking with a city employee.
On Thursday, Callison emailed the South Whidbey Record a $64 invoice for time city attorney Mike Kenyon spent in February responding to a Record reporter’s question. Callison said the “city attorney’s time is not free” and that the newspaper would need to 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.”
Kenyon is Langley’s city attorney but he is a contract employee who bills by the hour. The position’s annual budget is $50,000.
The mayor’s move was criticized by champions of open government, attorneys and elected Langley officials alike, being described as everything from “unusual” to “ludicrous.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said it was 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.”
“The idea that they would charge for the time to do that is ridiculous,” he added.
Similarly, Fred Obee, executive director of the Washington Newspapers Publishers Association, said he’d never heard of anything like that in his 30-year career in newspapers.
“It’s ludicrous,” he said. “On what planet of reality is this even coming from?”
Reporters across the United States routinely call city attorneys for clarification on proposed legislation. It’s not only their constitutional right to do so, he said, but that of the public as well.
“Any citizen has the right to inquire about a city government’s policies…,” he said. “You would think the city would want to encourage that free flow of information.”
He also addressed Callison’s claim about attorney client privilege, saying that while it does apply in certain circumstances it’s not a blanket privilege shielding lawyers from speaking with the media.
The invoice is also raising red flags with at least two city council members. Thomas Gill and Rene Neff both said billing reporters for time spent speaking to a city employee, even a contracted one, was inappropriate and that they believe the issue should be discussed by the entire council. They said it trespassed on the media and the public’s right to question their elected and paid public servants.
“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.”
Neff shared Gill’s sentiments.
“I think that’s absolutely not OK,” she said. “I think it’s really important for the public and the media to ask questions, especially right now.”
“Wow,” she said.
Callison did, however, find support with Councilman Bruce Allen. Allen said he didn’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.”
He also said that because the reporter isn’t a city resident and doesn’t pay Langley taxes, he shouldn’t be afforded the same rights as other residents.
Councilwoman Ursula Shoudy and Councilwoman Dominique Emerson both said they weren’t prepared to offer an opinion and declined further comment.
The Record attempted to ascertain whether any other municipalities charge reporters or the public for speaking with city workers. Everett, Coupeville, Port Townsend, Anacortes and Island County all confirmed they have no such practice and never have.
“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.
Bill Hawkins, a former city attorney for Oak Harbor and former Island County prosecutor, said the media was never charged for speaking with him while he was in either of those positions.
“Certainly not while I was there,” he said.
He added that he’s not aware of the practice being done anywhere else.
Hawkins is currently the district court judge in Oak Harbor.
Correspondence between the newspaper and the city attorney occurred on Feb. 9 when a reporter called asking for the law firm’s written recommendation for Langley not to declare sanctuary city status. Kenyon responded in an email saying, “Thanks for the call, but I’m sorry to report that I don’t have any non-privileged written material prepared on this issue.”
Tensions between the mayor and the newspaper seem to have heightened following a Feb. 25 editorial which criticized Callison for his handling of the sanctuary city discussions, as well as his threat to resign if the city council adopted a sanctuary city ordinance.
Earlier this week, Callison requested the newspaper contact him only at City Hall and not through his personal cell phone. The Record has regularly corresponded with Callison using his cell phone since his election. The following day, he left a message on a reporter’s cell phone asking for The Record’s billing address in connection with the February question to the city attorney. A formal email with the invoice was sent to the paper the next day.
When informed of the series of events, Obee said the mayor’s actions appeared “punitive” of 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,” he said.
Gill, Emerson and Neff agreed, saying that it sounded “retaliatory” in nature. They said the issue needs to be discussed by the entire council at its next meeting.
“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.