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Look Who's Talking 

by William Stimson


The Spokesman-Review is all for openness in government. Now. You can hardly open the paper these days without getting a lecture on how important it is that the public be let in on everything.


On the first day of this month, for example, Spokesman-Review editorial writers were outraged that the sheriff's department had not produced records when demanded.


"Those records," the Review editors intoned righteously and rightly, "like the records maintained by other public agencies, belong to the people." Even when it got the records, the Review remained suspicious about what caused a delay. "The new question, then, is how could the Sheriff's Office have been so mistaken about the existence of the Hahn records?"


The next day, June 2, a Spokesman-Review editorial turned a suspicious eye on Coeur d'Alene developer Duane Hagadone and his "north shore empire." Local government agencies, the editorial said, "should be careful to protect the public's interests in examining the complicated aspects of Hagadone's various proposals." Who could argue with that? Coeur d'Alene can learn something from Spokane's experience with developers.


And so it continues almost daily. Everybody involved in public business should operate with "transparency."


Last Friday, the Review produced one of my favorite examples in this crusade. A page-one story announced that the independent commission appointed to investigate Mayor Jim West's behavior had to delay its first meeting because the Spokesman-Review objected to the meeting being conducted behind closed doors. "We believe," intoned Editor Steve Smith, "the public's business -- and this is indisputably the public's business -- ought to be conducted in public."


"With the commission's impartiality an issue," Smith added, "the best thing members can do to earn credibility is to open their critical inquiry and deliberations to public scrutiny."


Exactly. When there is a question about impartiality -- the Spokesman-Review covering River Park Square would be an example -- common sense should tell you the situation demands complete openness to public scrutiny.


To emphasize the seriousness of its demands for openness, the Spokesman-Review had its attorney, Duane Swinton, spell them out in a letter, which was ceremoniously hand-delivered to City Hall.


I suppose the only thing that might weaken the gravity of this gesture is the fact that a few years ago, the same attorney went into City Hall to demand -- secrecy!


River Park Square was created in a fog of secrecy. People were required to sign confidentiality agreements and threatened with lawsuits should they tell the public of certain details.


Writing to city attorney Jim Sloane when John Talbott was elected mayor in 1997, Duane Swinton said, "Developers are specifically requesting that the City not make available to Mr. Talbott any of the material that has been submitted by the developers to the City in confidence."


In other words, the person just elected by the taxpayers of Spokane specifically to look into River Park Square was not to be told the details of the deal -- the deal, as we all know now, that was quite different than portrayed and that ended up costing Spokane citizens $20 million they never authorized (as Talbott had warned).


There was another opportunity for citizens of Spokane to become aware of the shaky finances of the parking garage. A dispute in the summer of 1999 with AMC Theaters over how much theatergoers would have to pay to park was important because those attending movies were expected to be crucial contributors to the income of the garage. Had taxpayers known that this source of income was uncertain, they might have taken measures to protect themselves.


But the dispute was carefully hidden. When a Band-Aid agreement was reached, those involved signed, at the insistence of the mall's developers, agreements promising they would "will not discuss ... the existence of this agreement."


It has to appear to any intelligent person that the Spokesman-Review's enthusiasm for open public dealings is highly dependent upon whether it happens to be one of those involved in the dealings. That is, they are hypocrites. They propound rules of behavior they are not willing to live by themselves.


Because of this background, well-intentioned Spokesman-Review appeals for openness are apt to invite a cynical response: "Look who's talking."


Steve Smith, as one who editorializes on the value of openness, surely knows the remedy. Explain everything -- not general allusions to "ethical lapses," but details. Much as the Sheriff's Department must explain the snafu over the Hahn records, Betsy Cowles must explain what led to the faulty figures in the Walker Report. Duane Swinton should be required to defend his campaign for secrecy on River Park Square. Editors past and present should explain why they downplayed such timely warnings as the Coopers & amp; Lybrand report.


But all this is has been said before. It is four years this month since I submitted an article to the Spokesman-Review advocating this kind of public disclosure. It was rejected as an insult to the Spokesman-Review.


When Chris Peck left, I made the same suggestion to his successor, Steve Smith. That was a year and a half ago.


Even I can take a hint. The Spokesman-Review is not going to follow the logic of openness so far as to apply it to itself.


But could they at least spare us the self-righteous editorials about openness?





William Stimson is a journalism professor at EWU.

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