He’s paying the price: The mayor of the small Whidbey Island community, hoping to make a point, billed a local newspaper $64 for practicing journalism, an act that backfired big time, creating a national fuss.
Tim Callison, mayor of the small Whidbey Island town of Langley, fired off an email last week to the local newspaper, telling the publication to pay up for an act of journalism: a reporter’s conversation with the city attorney.
“Pleas [sic] find attached the bill for contacting the City’s Attorney on February 9, 2017. Please remit the amount of $64,” said the email sent Thursday by Callison to a reporter and editor for the South Whidbey Record.
On Monday, after controversy over his action blazed through news reports and social media, Callison said it was all a misunderstanding.
He says he never intended to collect the cash, but was trying to get the newspaper’s attention.
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“It was bad judgment for me to word it that way,” Callison said. “What I wanted was a phone call.”
What he got instead was a blast of unwanted scrutiny — and wrath from open-government advocates — after the Record wrote an article headlined “Mayor of Langley puts price on freedom of the press.”
According to the newspaper, a reporter called city attorney Michael Kenyon last month asking for a copy of the written advice he’d given the city about a sanctuary-city ordinance under consideration by the City Council.
As in many small towns, the attorney for Langley is not a direct employee but bills the city for time spent — in Kenyon’s case, $320 an hour.
In sending his payment demand to the newspaper, Callison attached Kenyon’s February bill to the city in which he noted a slice of time spent responding to a reporter’s inquiry about the sanctuary-city ordinance.
“I think any reasonable person would say that’s a bill,” said Justin Burnett, editor of the twice-weekly newspaper. “I would hope that the city does back down and that the city won’t press the issue and force us to pay for this bill. We won’t do it.”
In his email to the newspaper, Callison noted the attorney worked for the city and was “not a free public resource.” In a follow-up letter to the Record, he contended not attempting to collect the charges would amount to “an illegal gift” of public funds.
But Callison on Monday said he’d just been trying to prove a point about how much the attorney’s time cost the city, which has just 14 employees. He said he’s been open with information and wanted reporters to contact the city directly before going to the pricey attorney.
If Burnett had called him last week, Callison said, he’d have told him he already had arranged for Kenyon to drop the $64 charge.
He added that he has never made it a practice to charge media for time spent talking with city workers and would not be billing The Seattle Times for this article.
Misunderstanding or not, Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said he’d never seen anything like Callison’s email.
Nixon, who’s also a Kirkland City Councilmember, said he’s familiar with outside attorneys billing cities in tenths-of-an-hour increments for legal services. It’s a real expense.
“But for the mayor in Langley to just turn around and take that invoice and pass it along to the newspaper is really over the top,” he said.
Answering reporter questions “is an expense that every government agency should expect to be accountable to the public,” Nixon said.
The timing comes during Sunshine Week, a national initiative that celebrates access to public information and the right to know.
Callison, who says he’s never held another political office and joked he’s paid $55,000 “for all the fun I can get,” was juggling a barrage of media calls along with staff meetings Monday.
“This has gotten much bigger than I intended, obviously,” he said.