SEATTLE -- The mayor of Langley billed a newspaper $64 after a reporter contacted the city attorney and asked a question about ongoing discussions over whether Langley should become a sanctuary city. See below for Mayor Callison's letter to the Editor of the South Whidbey Record.
“As a reminder, the City Attorney works for the City of Langley and is not a free public resource,” Mayor Tim Callison wrote in an email to the South Whidbey Record on March 9, which the paper shared with KING 5. A bill from Langley’s contracted attorney, Mike Kenyon, was attached to the message.
“Please remit the amount of $64 to the City,” Callison wrote.
According to the South Whidbey Record, a reporter called Kenyon on February 9, asking for a copy of the attorney’s written recommendation for Langley not to declare sanctuary city status. The one-page document was prepared prior to the reporter's inquiry, the mayor told KING 5, Sunday.
Kenyon responded in an email, informing the reporter that he didn’t have any written material he was prepared to share publicly, the newspaper reported.
The $64 bill arrived a month later.
“We’re going to keep doing our jobs, and the city can send us as many bills as they like,” Justin Burnett, editor of the South Whidbey Record told KING 5 Sunday. He says the paper won’t be paying the city.
“A free press is a cornerstone of democracy and charging for information directly threatens that,” he said.
In an email responding to questions about the bill, Mayor Callison told KING 5 he is required to bill the paper for the charges.
“The reporter was not simply inquiring into the status of a matter before the City (a simple question like this will be answered by our attorney at no cost to us) but, asked for a legal opinion - therefore work product,” Callison wrote. “The City Attorney is an outside contract employee that bills us for his time. To not try to collect for this request of work product would constitute a gift of public funds which is against State Law.”
“He was asking about something that's related to city business,” Burnett, the paper’s editor, told KING 5 in response to the mayor’s statement. “He was doing his job as a reporter.”
According to the paper’s reporting on the bill, tensions between the mayor and the South Whidbey Record “seem to have heightened” in recent weeks. The newspaper published an editorial on February 25 criticizing the mayor for his handling of sanctuary city discussions as well as his threat to resign if the city council adopted a sanctuary city ordinance, protecting undocumented immigrants.
In a phone call with KING 5 on Sunday, Callison denied the bill had anything to do with the editorial. He submitted this letter to the Editor of the South Whidbey Record on Sunday:
I would like to have an opportunity to respond to the recent news story and editorial regarding a billing issue between the City and South Whidbey Record over City of Langley Attorney Use titled “Mayor puts price on freedom of the press” and “Yeah, we are not paying”
1. The City does not have an attorney on staff. In fact the city only has 14 employees. They do indeed use an attorney, when needed. There is an approval process to go through prior to utilizing the services. The attorney charges $320 an hour (almost as much as the entire staff combined) and with such a small budget, this is a resource used sparingly.
2. The city did hire the attorney to work on legal opinion regarding the Sanctuary City issue. The City Attorney was invited to the 1/17 City Council Meeting to share that opinion with the Council and the Public – a meeting the reporter attended.
3. No other opinions have been requested from the Attorney regarding the Sanctuary City issue other than to review and advise on the Resolutions that have been drafted by the City Council. And, just recently to provide Sample Ordinance Language.
4. On 2/9 the reporter from the record used the attorneys time asking a series of questions about Sanctuary City. Some were answered, some were not. The attorney, as they are wont to do, billed for this time.
5. The city treasurer, received an invoice for the time the attorney spent with the reporter, and knowing it was not pre-approved, questioned it. As is her fiscal job to do. To not collect the charges would be an illegal gift of public funds. She has been working in the city for 24 years, and said in all this time, the city has never been invoiced by an attorney for work hired by an outside company – newspaper or not.
6. The reporting of the Record was incorrect in that I did talk to the Reporter directly about the charge and ask that he and his Editor call me back. He indicated that his Editor was gone for the day, but that they would get back to me.
7. The attorney invoice was forwarded on to the newspaper, as they are the ones that requested the work. The newspaper was not formally invoiced by the city to talk to an employee as the paper indicated.
8. Prior to writing the article, the paper did not contact the treasurer to ask about the charge, did not contact me about the charge, but did however, ask people that were unaware of the circumstances and reported on their lack of knowledge and surprise of it. Again, not explaining to them what the circumstances were.
9. We have never billed or attempted to bill for discussions with a tax-payer funded employee. Our Attorney is a specialist subcontractor to the City.
I am still waiting for a phone call from you to see if we can resolve this matter agreeably.
I hope this helps clear things up for the readers of the South Whidbey Record.
Mayor of Langley
On Tuesday, March 14, the South Whidbey Record said they received a written response from Mayor Callison:
I had a phone call from Justin Burnett the Editor of the South Whidbey Record today. I informed him that I had an agreement from the City Attorney to waive the $64 charge for the call from the reporter. And, that we had agreed how we would handle similar press inquiries in the future. I asked that his reporters contact the City first as we generally can provide the needed information and if there is a circumstance that requires waiving of Attorney Client Privilege we are the ones that have to do it.
It was very productive and I stressed that I strongly believe in the freedom of the press and was not my intention to try to abridge that right. And, that I view the Record as a vital contributor to our efforts to improve the prosperity of Langley.
I informed him that I had an agreement from the City Attorney to waive the $64 charge for the call from the reporter. And, that we had agreed how we would handle similar press inquiries in the future. I asked that his reporters contact the City first as we generally can provide the needed information and if there is a circumstance that requires waiving of Attorney Client Privilege we are the ones that have to do it.I apologized to him about the language I used in the email,I should have just said can you call me to discuss the charge from the Attorney. I believe that Justin, the reporters and The Record do a good job in reporting fairly and responsibly. I look forward to a continuing professional relationship with them.