Sep 23

My column: Washington Coalition for Open Government Hosts Forum in Colfax

Occasionally I’ve written guest columns on behalf of the Washington Coalition for Open Government to promote upcoming events. I was asked to do so for an event in Colfax. It’s traditional to open these columns with horror stories about how government tries to hide meetings or records. With this column, I just wanted to do something a little different. You can let me know if that worked or not.

I’m sharing it here because the Moscow/Pullman Daily News has the original behind a paywall. Given the circumstances of newspapers, I think that’s great, and I hope my printing this particular column here won’t undermine their business model :)

Lyrics for an open government

Imagine the lights dimming in the movie theater, as everyone shuts off their cell phones and readies for the film. They’re looking forward to watching a musical. The singer who opens the movie, instead of going on about  love, crime or an army, opens with these words in operatic grandeur:

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.

“The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

OK, so the words may not be catchy as songs about cats or gangsters, but if the tune was right, you would have an audience pretty excited about democracy and open government. And they should be, for these are the opening words of the Washington State Public Records Act (more technically known as Chapter 42.56 of the state legal code). Those are not just words or lyrics; they’re law.

What the law sets out, in detail, is how government should divulge information to you. And there’s a whole other section about how government and particularly appointed and elected officials should conduct business in the open. The Open Public Meetings Act entitles you to witness the deliberations of our “instruments.”

However, life is more complex than a song, and nothing is as simple as it appears. Getting government to comply with your right to inspect documents and witness its meetings is sometimes more complex than the most confusing movie.

So, please consider joining the League of Women Voters of Pullman and the Washington Coalition for Open Government for a special discussion about government access and particularly the open meetings law and its practice.

This free community forum is 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the  headquarters of the McGregor Co., 401 Airport Road, Colfax.

A panel, moderated by Anna King of Northwest Public Radio, will fuel the discussion. The panel includes:
  • Toby Nixon, president of the coalition and a Kirkland City Council member
  • Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspapers Association
  • Scott Sackett of the Washington State Digital Archives in Cheney
  • Emily Arneson Kelly of the Spokane law firm Witherspoon Kelley
Just to be clear, no singing is planned.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government is an independent and non-partisan nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the state’s open government laws and protecting the public’s access to government at all levels. Members of the Coalition include individual citizen activists and representatives of government, media, law, education, labor, business, and public policy organizations. Members come from all colors in the political spectrum, united in a belief that only by comparing knowledge and advice can we open government to more light.

For one thing, some elected officials just don’t know, or chose not to know, that they are supposed to meet in public and to make records available to you. A newly elected member of a city council once said to me that surely council members wouldn’t have to divulge the city’s budget until they were done deliberating on it. The assumption, based on the person’s conduct of their private life, was that elected officials wouldn’t want the public to know when we disagree, because some people find disagreement unpleasant.

Well, that’s not what the law says. It was a simple matter to educate the person, who immediately recognized that they were going to have to tell the public what they thought as the budget was developed.

Both elected officials and other members of the public should consider coming to the forum. It’s a good way to learn the laws on open public meetings and open public records and a great place to bring your questions about open government.

Walter Neary, a former business and tech editor at The Olympian newspaper and a member of the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, served on the Lakewood City Council from 2004 through 2011. He writes at

Sep 04

It Shouldn’t be so Hard to Attribute Information to the Author in Twitter

With a book deadline now a month away, I’ve gotten pretty quiet on this blog. But a morning reading social media has me pondering, for the umpteenth time this year, what the heck ever happened to giving an author credit for her or his content.

I enjoy Twitter because it gives me a chance to skim a large part of the world’s consciousness in short order. I sometimes share stories I find interesting. But I seem to share stories differently than a large part of the world because in my Tweets, I give credit to the author. Let me give you an example.

Here’s a story about how a computer can insert someone into a comic. This whole subject fascinates me, and I’m not alone. Just the other day, Bill Gates and colleagues got some publicity for inventing tech that might put what is described in words onto a screen. So this manga story fascinated me, and I wanted to share it.

Bit RebelsjLet’s look for a second at how most other people shared that story. You can tell that quickly by clicking on the stats next to the Twitter box by most posts. In the screenshot above, you’d click on the ’199.’

What’s missing that you find in almost every other kind of written word? Attribution. And by attribution, two things are missing. First, what’s missing is the source of the story. Second, what’s missing is the name of the author.

I’m reminded of a school of thought that’s gathering in which critics say social media is depriving us of personal relationships at the same time we’re all sharing more information. We’ve got to the point where sources of information don’t matter; it’s all about sharing a sound bite.

To be fair, some people shared the source of the information, which is, as you can see from the screenshot above, a site called Bit Rebels.

giving credit to bitrebelsIn fact, giving attribution to the location of the post was a very easy thing to do. If you go to the main post and click on the little Twitter button, this prompt comes up

tweet prompt

But suppose you want to give credit to the author as well as to say where the information came from? I went to the bottom of the page and saw this:

authorWith the mouse I right-clicked on the Twitter icon, and learned that Darell goes by the Twitter handle of @Minervity, which I cut and pasted into my Tweet. So this is how I shared his post:

my post about mangaSo it took a couple extra seconds, but at least my post now lists the author of the original article. Does it make any sense to do this on Twitter? To me, it’s a matter of giving someone credit for their work.

The process is not always simple, and sometimes takes ridiculously long by social media standards. Let’s take this post from this morning:

Dewey post So if you click on the Twitter icon to share the post, this is what you get:

Twitter prompt for Dewey postOkayyyyyyy, well that’s no help if you want to give credit for the post to someone and the place he or she published the information. And of course, this is how most of the rest of the world shared the story:

Dewey most Tweets

I wanted to attribute the information. So my first reaction was to open a Tweet and type “@wired” since you would assume from the screenshot above that the post was on Wired. However, I did a second look at the page, and on the right you will see that it says “Follow Wired Opinion.” It turns out “@WiredOpinion” is a Twitter handle. Great, detective work done, I cut and pasted that into my Tweet.

Now I have to give credit to Joshua Kendall. About half the time, there is some clue on the page as to what the Twitter handle is of the author. The other half of the time, Im pop open a window and search. Nine times out of 10, it’s pretty easy to figure out who the author is. When you call up their Twitter page, there’s usually some reference to the story you’re looking up or hopefully a reference to the person being on staff of the posting organization. Or, sometimes the photo on the Twitter page will match the photo with the post, if there’s a photo. So here’s our results for Joshua Kendall

Joshua Kendall resultsOK, so honestly, this time, I just gave up. I could have dug into all these people’s Tweets, I could have gone into LinkedIn, I could have looked for other stories he’s written online and seen if any give him a Twitter handle, etc. I could spend all day looking up that and other stuff on social media. Here’s my confession. I just flat cut my losses and gave up. Here’s how I shared the story.

my Dewey tweet

So at least there’s attribution for the source of the story.

I’m clearly spending more time at this than most other people. I guess the question is, is it worth it? To me, the written word should be accompanied by the name of the author and the place of publication. But maybe that’s old-school. Maybe Twitter is in such a hurry, those things don’t matter. To me, they do.



Jul 09

Washington Legislature Wisely Adds Reforms to the Lodging Tax Laws

Click on the photo of the governor's bill-signing, above, to learn more about the lodging tax legislation.

Click on the photo of the governor’s bill-signing, above, to learn more about the lodging tax reform legislation from the Washington Lodging Association.

Considering how often we all like to pick on the Washington State Legislature, it’s only fair to shout when the lawmakers do something very smart. And they have!

The subject in question has what at first is a sexy name: the bed tax. It’s not what you think. The subject is also called the lodging tax. The lodging tax is a fee that communities collect from people who stay overnight at hotels, motels and such.

The people who own hotels and motels don’t want the taxes paid by their customers to pay for just anything. The hotel industry, in lobbying the legislature, set things up long ago so that a committee of people outside of politicians gets to recommend how the money is spent, And the money has to be spent on promoting tourism – in other words, attracting more people who will pay the tax (with obvious benefits to the hotels, of course). The committee is of a very unusual makeup: half of the committee members have to be people who own hotels and half must represent tourism-related organizations.

I was once asked at a meeting if there was any tax that I liked.  I said yes, the lodging tax. That’s because;

  • The lodging tax is collected for a specific purpose that everyone knows.
  • Not only elected officials, but also a committee of local citizens get a say in how it’s spent.
  • Groups must apply for the funding with specific information for which they can be held accountable.
  • And it’s easy, or it should be, to figure out what exactly the lodging tax funds are spent on in any given place. Good luck figuring out what exactly your sales tax and property tax are buying, other than in general categories.

You could argue I like the tax too much and take it too seriously. This came up in Lakewood a couple of years ago, back when I was still on the council. A majority of council members decided to bypass the Lakewood committee and spend a bunch of Lakewood lodging tax for city employees who promote economic development. At the time, I thought that was the wrong thing to spend money on. I made a lot of noise about that. With classic Neary luck, I chose exactly the time to complain that the state auditor’s office was deciding to loosen up on how it interpreted the law on how lodging taxes are spent. So I looked a bit dumb, but hey, there’s no safety net in elected office.

To this day, though, I still disagree on HOW the city council spent the money. The council bypassed the advisory committee in making that decision. No one applied to the citizens’ committee. No one had to. The council just decided. I don’t like it, as you can tell from my most recent posts, when elected officials wrongly bypass citizens in conducting discussions and making decisions.

By golly, apparently the Washington Legislature agrees with me. (yes, that’s the sound of thunder in the background). The Legislature in the last session decreed that not only does a city council have to tell a committee before it spends lodging tax money, but the lodging tax committee must agree to the expenditure.The Legislature in fact specific this is the order of things: someone has to apply, and get past the citizens’ committee first.

In other words, the legislature said the citizens are as important as the elected officials. You can get more information about the law here:

That was a great decision. Citizens matter, and they particularly matter when it comes to spending tax dollars in which they have a stake.

There are some other good changes, such as requiring people who get the money to describe just how much tourism they are generating. Again, you can read more at the link above.

I learned all this by attending the Monday night joint meeting of the Lakewood City Council and its lodging tax advisory board. The discussion was collegial, and everyone agreed to work together.Not everyone is starting off so collegially, as you can see (click here) from this example story from Spokane Valley.

“It appears your role has been enhanced,” a smiling Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson told the committee members Monday night.

What a great start for a new way of doing things – a better way.

Jun 27

Spending the night with several thousand dead people and loving it

Tacoma Cemetery Tour poster 2013This sure seems like it’s been a good year for death and a bad year for the rest of us. A lot of private and famous people seem to have passed on recently. Locally, the names of George Weyerhaeuser Jr and State Sen. Mike Carrell come to mind.

Death is an essential result of life. Death is a bookend to life. Yet death makes us nervous and fearful. No wonder. People who know they are about to die often behave differently than they did before. Who can blame them?

For me, a couple of nights in a small city of dead people is a highlight of my year as an amateur historian and re-enactor. I’m there not to hang out with the dead, though we do that. I’m  there for the company of the living who join me in visiting the Tacoma Cemetery. We celebrate and honor the memory of those who have gone before us.

You can learn something from anyone’s life. And Tacoma Cemetery has a large cluster of Tacoma’s pioneers who convey lessons about how to live a life.

The occasion is the 5th annual Living History Tour, a benefit for the Tacoma Historical Society. The Fort Nisqually Time Travelers gather nine re-enactors in the cemetery. Each of us stands by a particular grave. As visitors arrive in small groups, we talk for a few minutes as if any of us was the person whose remains are buried nearby.

Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to present the life of John Proctor, the architect who gave his name to a Tacoma neighborhood. Last year, I re-enacted H. F. “Bert” Alexander, a former owner of Lakewold Gardens and a powerful and rich shipline owner of the 1920s.

The experience appeals to me on a couple of levels. To begin with, I enjoy the historical research – having a reason to go to places like the Tacoma Library’s Northwest Room and dive into someone else’s life and times. And second, I enjoy the company of both the re-enactors and the people who will visit us. You don’t get people tromping through a cemetery unless they really want to be there (or a loved one or friend wanted them to be there). It’s wonderful to give a talk when so many people are paying close attention.

And then the third thing is, it’s wonderful to be entrusted with the memory of an entire life. This July, I’ll be bringing to life Herbert Hunt. Hunt was a newspaper editor, like I used to be, which gives me a connection to him. And that was the reason I wanted to portray him. But he’s most famous as the author of the first major history of Tacoma. The three volumes and 400,000 words of “Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders, a Half Century of Activity” were published in 1916, two years before Hunt died.

By that point, professional historians were already circling Seattle and publishing histories about it. Hardly anyone was writing about Tacoma. But Hunt, editor of the Tacoma Daily News for a decade by then, was devoted to the progress and understanding of Tacoma. Hunt not only went through all the 19th Century paper records that were already turning yellow by then, but he tracked down people to interview such as the men who led the infamous expulsion of the Chinese from Tacoma in 1885. We wouldn’t know much at all about the  expulsion had Hunt not interviewed men and set down the horrific story. Hunt’s books are mandatory for anyone who writes about the history of our area, serving as a foundation for the works of Murray Morgan and countless other local historians.

As was the fashion of the day, the majority of his multi-volume historical series are biographies of rich men who helped finance the book project. To be fair, that part of the history partially wrote itself. But Hunt’s writings about Tacoma itself are a lively, interesting read. His history is not a set of boring essays like you might get from many histories. You can tell a journalist wrote the books. In preparing for my talk about Proctor, I dived into Hunt’s book, and read one story about an election that Proctor was involved in back in the 19th century. Two men bet on the outcome. The one who won got to pelt the other man with rotten eggs on one of Tacoma’s main streets, and did so for so long that the loser became physically ill. Now that’s a story. And you thought politics today was bad.

Historian and editor Herbert Hunt

On July 19 and 20 I’ll be presenting the life of Herbert Hunt next to his grave at Tacoma Cemetery.

As I finish this post, I’m about to open up a screen and finish the script for my 5-minute talk about Hunt. To be honest, I’m nervous and humbled when writing these talks. Who am I to capture an entire life of a person of great accomplishment in 5 minutes? And this year, there’s an edge. The reasons I am so compelled to present Hunt are very different than my reasons last year when I was begging them to let me present him this year. The original reason I wanted to present Hunt is that editors of his time were wisecracking characters – they insulted each other early and often, and I thought it would be great fun to make the audience laugh in a cemetery as I read off all the things he wrote about other editors.

But then I began my research, and I learned about Hunt the man. Two things jumped out at me. First, he was a neat freak. He specified the layout of his newsroom so that it could be cleaned to his satisfaction. That cracked me up. He would cover the newspaper every morning with the marks of an editor and present it to the other editors, demanding they always use better English and report more carefully.

Then I learned the conditions under which he actually wrote his famous series of books about Tacoma. The very next year, he followed with a similarly sized three volumes about the entire state of Washington. That’s about 800,000 words of history in two years. How in the heck could anyone write so much, at such a high level of accuracy, in two years?

Hopefully you’ll come to the tour and hear the answer! But I guess I can’t resist giving some of the secret away, because the lesson of this man is so proud and compelling.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that some people change their behavior when they know they’re going to die. What would you do?

Would you curl up, die inside mentally, and turn bitter?

Would you spend your time reaching out to everyone you’ve known?

Or would you compose masterpieces of art that no one could ever duplicate?

We have much to learn from the dead.

The Fort Nisqually Time Travelers, in cooperation with the Tacoma Cemeteries and Tacoma Historical Society, present the Fifth Annual Living History Cemetery Tour on July 19 and 20 this year. Nine re-enactors will portray people who had an impact on local history and share their life stories from their grave sites.  This year’s theme “Tacoma’s Icons” means you’ll have the chance to hear the inspiring stories of movers and shakers such as Job Carr, Thea Foss and Bishop John Paddock. And a humble editor.

Tours last one hour and start every 20 minutes from 6 to 7:40 p.m. on Friday, July 19, and 5:40 to 7:40 pm on Saturday, July 20, at Tacoma Cemetery, 4801 South Tacoma Way.  $8 advanced reservations are required and available Tuesday through Saturday at the Cemetery, (253) 472-3369.

As the cemetery ground is often uneven, comfortable walking shoes are encouraged.






Jun 19

Lakewood city manager candidates look promising

Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps

Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps speaks to people gathered at a reception for city manager candidates held Monday at McGavick Center, Clover Park Technical College

6 p.m. update … well looks like there’s only one candidate left. But if you read the column below, you might get the sense that’s going to work out. Update here on how Caulfield is the last man standing:

Written before all that took place …

Candidates for the role of Lakewood city manager met their public Monday night at a reception sponsored by the City Council. People got a chance to speak with the three men and then submit written comments or consideration by the council. Here are some thoughts about where the city is at. The city is in a good place right now: at the edge of a tough selection where the community hopefully can’t lose either way.

It’s worth remembering that city manager is a key role in Lakewood. The City Council, in theory, only sets policies and priorities, though the council does dive into details when it approves a budget. It’s the city manager who has to execute good government and public policy through the staff of the city. He or she is like an orchestra conductor or a movie director. You could have the best City Council in the world – and for that matter, the best city staff in the world – and a bad city manager could undercut them all. So this is a high stakes decision. Unless there’s some emergency, this is likely to be the most important decision facing the present City Council.

Here we are a couple days later, and you can see how some signs of Monday night have already played out. Christian Hill of The News Tribune reports that after Tuesday interviews, the candidate from outside the state has dropped out. ( )That’s not a surprise if you went to the Monday night event, but bravo to him for trying.

All three men were playing roles you could have expected from Hollywood casting:

  • The guy with diverse experience.
  • The guy who has been steadily climbing the ranks in the profession.
  • The outsider with new ideas.

The good news is, the two top candidates are both very strong. They’re also very different. It’s going to be fascinating to see which the council chooses.

The runner-up was Matthew Fulton, whose most relevant experience was six years as a city manager in a similarly sized city in Minnesota, Coon Rapids. Thus he was the outsider, his role being to compete as someone with fresh ideas and skills from out-of-state. During brief remarks on Monday night, Fulton was pretty candid about the role, admitting he didn’t know the area as well as the other two candidates. He had learned of Lakewood through our former City Manager, Andrew Neiditz, because they both served on a national organization of city managers.  I’m sure he’ll land somewhere good, and be known for candor.

Thus the two finalists are Kevin Phelps, whose resume shows a career of constantly trying and achieving new accomplishments. He’s a former business owner in Tacoma (whose first job was at a stereo store on Bridgeport in Lakewood back in the day). Phelps rehabilitated and managed the Landmark Convention Center in Tacoma, which is a historic building that has followed a successful trajectory we’d all love to see repeated in the Lakewood Colonial Center.

Pheips was a two-term Tacoma City Council member, so he understands the spotlight and the role of a council. He was an executive in the state auditor’s office working on performance audits. Currently, he works for the Pierce County Executive’s office as deputy county executive. My loyal readers, both of you, know that the city of Lakewood has not always had smooth relations with the county exec’s office (though Pat McCarthy, the current exec, is so high above her predecessors I hope they keep oxygen handy). With so many of Lakewood’s issues tied to the region as a whole, connection to the exec’s office has value.

The opening card he played Monday night is that he already lives here. It’s hard to argue with that as an opening line. The guy lives four minutes away from City Hall. This was Phelps way of saying that he doesn’t need to “try out” the community: he lives here. And Phelps of course spoke of his private sector experience, which is a heartwarming expression to a city that’s always considered itself friendly to business and believes in customer service as a guiding principle. “I know what it’s like to write payroll checks for 30 years,” he said.

Phelps talked about how eager he is to apply all his diverse experiences to local government, which provides services that make a real difference in people’s lives.

Mountlake Terrace City Manager John Caulfield

Mountlake Terrace City Manager John Caulfield tells the audience why he’d like to be Lakewood City Manager

And yet while your heart belongs to the local kid, the best opening line of the event had to belong to John Caulfield. Caulfield plays the role of someone who’s been steadily climbing the ranks in city administration: from a finance officer in Federal Way and then our neighbor, University Place, to city manager today in Mountlake Terrace (pop 21,000). The logical next step for someone on his disciplined career path is a city the size of Lakewood (pop 60,000).

Caulfield began by sharing his first memories of Lakewood: as a sergeant at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. That he was stationed at the base got everyone’s attention; then Caulfield said he decided to stay in this area because all the people he met outside the base were so kind and warm to soldiers, especially the people of adjacent Tillicum.

I’m not sure what Caulfield could have said that would have been more heartwarming to this crowd than to announce he was the secret brother of Bill Harrison and Doug Richardson (who are not really related, btw – don’t start a rumor). This is a community that has dedicated enormous energy to trying to make JBLM’s people feel embraced and welcome. And it wouldn’t hurt to share some love with Tillicum. So I have to say, if this guy needs a gig as a speechwriter, he should get it.

But Caulfield could have a shot at the city manager job. He deserves it. When the candidates were asked about what mistakes they’d made in their career, Caulfield chose the most painful example, where he could have done better handling community input and speaking to a community about a difficult subject. We’ve struggled a bit in Lakewood with how the city government handles difficult subjects with its citizens, and Caulfield was sending a clear signal he has learned the hard way about this subject.

He quoted an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to far, go together.”

In conversation with both men afterward, it struck me that this is one of those deals where the council can’t really make a bad choice.  Will they make the best decision? That we won’t know until months later, when the eventual winner is on the ground and performing. So far, so good.

If you’d like to see better photos of the candidates, check out this link from Patch:









Jun 16

Time Travel to 2011: Why Tillicum Lost in the Dispute with Camp Murray

Lowenberg Gate to Camp Murray in Tillicum

The Lowenberg Gate to Camp Murray. It got built.

In 2011, Lakewood endured one of the most bitter neighborhood debates in recent memory. Residents of the Tillicum area were deeply concerned about traffic changes announced by the leadership team at Camp Murray. Camp Murray is outside Lakewood boundaries, and it already had half the permits it needed for construction from Pierce County government. Lakewood was wresting with the rest of the requests of Camp Murray and its then commander, Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg.

Many Tillicum residents just naturally assumed our Lakewood council would defend them from Camp Murray at all costs, just as we had done our best to defend them and other parts of town from the railroad line proposals. Our council, armed with sharp lawyers, had to stare down the state government, the federal government, and a president running for re-election who was bragging about the project. I sort of assumed we would stand immovable for Tillicum too, which is why my blog was so rosy at the time. And yet, based on the nature of Lakewood itself, you could tell this was going to be one of the thorniest Lakewood neighborhood battles ever. When I met with Tillicum neighborhood leadership, I did not predict an outcome, but I do remember telling them to get a good lawyer.

Here’s the deal. Tillicum was never going to win that one, because of who they were up against. And it’s a lesson worth knowing if you want to be part of steering Lakewood away from such disputes again.

Of course, in almost every scenario you could have imagined, Tillicum would have won. It’s an unwritten rule that a city is going to put its own citizens first. Tillicum residents have earned the consideration not just for where they live, within city boundaries, but for years of organized effort to reclaim their community from crime.

If Camp Murray had been Microsoft, or Intel, or Western State Hospital, or the Gates Foundation, or the state Department of Parks, and they wanted something that would disrupt Tillicum, Tillicum would have won.

So why didn’t it? Please let me exaggerate in this post to make a point. Indulge me while we enter a slightly alternate universe.

Let’s suppose Camp Murray did not exist. Let’s suppose instead Lakewood’s neighbor was the Animal Shelter for Pandas, Penguins and Every Cute Animal Imaginable and Camp for Adorably Wide-Eyed War Orphans of Brotsylspotsnia.

So in this alternate universe, everyone growing up in Lakewood would grow up next to an organization that traffics in adorable animals and children. Daily, the media from around the world would come to do stories on the place. Viral videos of adorable frolicking penguins, cute pandas and wide-eyed children from war zones would be among the most highly watched in YouTube. Children of all ages would grow up thinking that it would be cool to visit Lakewood and come see the adorable animals and donate to the disadvantaged children. Hollywood celebrities would come to the camp routinely to help the place raise money. The place would be a meme factory.

Let’s suppose the guy who ran the place, a fella named Lowenberg, was embarrassed at how these Hollywood celebrities have to see some parts of Lakewood and particularly at the awkward entrance to the  Animal Shelter for Pandas, Penguins and Every Cute Animal Imaginable and Camp for Adorably Wide-Eyed War Orphans of Brotsylspotsnia.

Lowenberg decides he wants a new gate.

Now, based on history, the city of Lakewood would look at the disruption caused by the gate and kindly tell him to deal with it. They would make alternate suggestions for improving the entry to his camp, and perhaps considering moving things a block or two. But Lowenberg would not take this lightly, and so he would lobby for Lakewood to give him what he wants. In my alternate reality, he would be able to summon the support of millions of people who support adorable penguins and pandas, and thus are slightly crazed with love of animals. He would be able to summon those who feel bad for the war orphans, and these people would pack the emails and mailboxes and voice mails of the Lakewood City Council with sympathy for the camp. Hollywood celebrities would arrive at the Lakewood City Council meeting. They’d sing songs of support for the camp outside in the City Hall parking lot, and clog the public comments section of meetings begging for the evil, mean city council to help the Animal Shelter for Pandas, Penguins and Every Cute Animal Imaginable and Camp. for Adorably Wide-Eyed Orphans of Brotsylspotsnia.

And the Lakewood City Council would stand firm for his citizens, because that’s what the council normally does. Your residents come first. Tillicum would have won.

But Tillicum was not up against any of those people, pandas or penguins.

Tillicum was up against the military.

The military cannot lose in Lakewood. Consider its role and its numbers in this community. Go into any store and look for young men with long hair. Good luck. You’ll see a couple. What I see instead are young men and women with short haircuts, often accompanied by a young spouse pushing a stroller.

For that matter, look around for men my age with long hair. Instead, I see men who have lost some or all of their hair after a lifetime of dedicated heroism to our nation.

Lakewood is packed to the bring with retirees who bring wisdom, honor and valor to our community.

The numbers bear this out. Camp Murray folks estimated in 2006 that their economic impact in the surrounding area was nearly half a billion dollars. Most of the available economic statistics are for JBLM, Camp Murray and Lakewood’s neighbor, which pumps more than $3 billion of payroll into the area.  Overall, more than 670,000 veterans and 106,000 active duty military live in the state. Source, click here

If the military says , “Hey Lakewood, disrupt your voters and other residents in Tillicum,” then Lakewood will.

Now, here’s the deal. You might think I’m teeing up to say I disagree. I’m not. I can’t say this is a bad thing. Consider the military. the men and women serving in our Armed Forces are willing to give their lives for you, for me, for people in other countries. I don’t know about you, but the bravest thing I am doing right now is driving a 1987 Toyota Corolla that does not have airbags. So for me to tell people in the military that they can’t have what they want is very ungrateful.

If the military announced that it is going to change traffic on my home, School Street, for the betterment of uniformed personnel and the nation’s security, then I better be prepared to suck it up.

If you return to Lakewood, consider that some of our elected officials, such as Mayor Doug Richardson, wanted to win election to other office. If the dispute was a political exercise, which it’s not, Doug could have chosen to side with the voters of Tillicum, all 90 of them, or the voters who represent current and retired military and/or work at JBLM and Camp Murray. Doug now represents, thankfully, our region on the Pierce County Council. Doug himself is a retired brigadier general, the caliber of man who could have commanded Camp Murray.

Now I know Doug Richardson. He is a man of great integrity. He has been a mentor to me. I was one of a couple people who helped make him the mayor after Bill Harrison. So I know Doug Richardson well, and he doesn’t count votes.

But there was absolutely no political downside to siding with the military over Tillicum.

In retrospect, it’s impressive that our City Council pushed back to Camp Murray as long as we did. As The News Tribune noted, Tillicum got a better deal than it would have had with the original plans for Lowenberg Gate.

I made a wisecrack about 90 voters in Tillicum. There are more. But not enough to counter the impacts of the military in this community, which run like blood through our collective veins. The voter numbers are not a slam at Tillicum. It’s true nationwide that people in lower-income areas vote less often than people in other demographics.

If Tillicum wants to be able to win political battles with the military, it’s going to need triple the number of registered and participating voters than it has now AND be able to prove it has an overriding interest in the nation’s security. Good luck.

It is rare, however, for the military bases to make demands that affect Lakewood residents so directly. That’s why in an earlier note, I called the Lowenberg Gate matter a fluke. It was a fluke that people associated with the military decided to use their power to impose will on Lakewood.  But could it happen again? Sure.

Here’s an example, once again exaggerated for effect. The commanders of the base and its Stryker brigades ponder what they could do to improve morale of the troops. Someone has a great idea. Name the local communities after the base! That would show real support! So they go to the local City Councils. They ask Lakewood to rename itself JBLM-wood. They ask Puyallup to name itself Lewis-lup. They ask DuPont to rename itself McChord-Pont.

Councils would immediately divide into two camps. Some council members in those cities would immediately make a motion to change the name. A second camp would suggest forming committees with citizens to explore the implications of the change. Would the military win in all three cities? I don’t know enough about DuPont and Puyallup to say, but it will take mighty strength to announce to the world, “No, we are not going to give our heroes in the military what they want.”

You might think that renaming idea is silly and no way it could happen. Tillicum residents used to think along those lines too. See the picture above.

And yet …This might be the time to step back and say, why do Tillicum and the military have to be at odds? Wouldn’t it be better if they got along, and the military not propose disruptions to the community? Camp Murray’s leadership has changed, and the Lowenberg of the Lowenberg Memorial Gate no longer commands out there.

Hopefully the military will work collaboratively with the community instead of being at odds with the community. Yes, the military are our real world superheroes. But when neighbors of any kind battle, no one wins.

 (( By the way, a final note to avoid confusion, the gate is not, as far as I know, yet named the Lowenberg Memorial Gate because a) he’s still alive and b) no one has gone through the formality of changing the name yet. I’m just trying to make a point by giving it the name early ))







Feb 28

Why Proposed Legislation in WA State would be Bad for the Public’s Right to Know

Props to the Association for Washington Cities, for inviting another point of view to their February 2013 legislative conference. I represented the Washington Coalition for Open Government in expressing concerns about HB 1128.

Props to the Association for Washington Cities for inviting another point of view to their February 2013 legislative conference in Olympia. I represented the Washington Coalition for Open Government in expressing concerns about proposed changes to the Washington Public Records Act.

A bill in front of the Washington Legislature, HB 1128, would be a lousy deal for the public and a sweet deal for city governments. Having been an elected official for eight years, I’m sympathetic to people in city governments. But the public always has to come first. That’s why I stand with the Washington Coalition for Open Government on this one.

The bill comes from the Association of Washington Cities, a trade group that represents cities. Their stated concern is that some citizens are using the public records act to harass cities. There’s no question this is true. The public records act is a tool. Tools can be used in many ways. Tools can be used for many reasons.  You can use a tool like a hammer for something good, like framing a house, or something bad, like hitting a kid.

Of course, most uses of a tool are usually good. With the public records act, some people request public records from government to discover information and sometimes uncover abuse or other issues that deserve to be known to the public. Yet like a person who might use a hammer to hurt someone, other people file public records act requests because they are angry at a person or city. They are unhappy with government, and a deep overly broad public records act request is a great way to create discomfort and disruption.

Meanwhile, still others compulsively seek records because this is how their craziness comes out. One thing you learn about serving in government is that power attracts the attention of the kind of people who used to be buried in anonymous graves outside Western State Hospital.

But exceptions should not drive the rule. And the rule, also known as the First Amendment, is clear:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

To the discomfort of anyone supporting HB 1128, the First Amendment does not say this…

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances unless someone in the government thinks the person is creating inconvenience or being nasty.

If it did say that, HB 1128 would be constitutional. Meanwhile, here’s another rule. This is what the Washington state law actually says:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.

To the discomfort of those supporting HB 1128, state law does not say this:

The people of this state yield their sovereignty to the people in the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, will receive information if they ask nicely and don’t offend anyone in government personally or professionally. The people will wait to be told in case any information might be uncomfortable to anyone in government and certainly wouldn’t want to trouble anyone in government to provide the information if it’s a lot of work. This chapter shall be liberally construed for the convenience and personal satisfaction of those employed by government so they may enjoy their experience in civil service or public office.

The poster child for people who want to limit your potential access to records is a city councilwoman from Pasco who was the subject of public records act requests after voting a way someone didn’t like. Do I think it’s cheesy to retaliate against someone in public office that way? Absolutely. Very much so. But does that mean you limit the unhappy citizen’s right to ask for records? You can’t. Because when you do that, you limit everyone’s right.

This brings up a final thought that I can share having been a city councilman. I learned this the hard way. There is one other thing the law does not say. Nowhere is it written “Your experience as a local elected official will be pleasant.” Fact is, people can make you very miserable as an elected official if you let them. People get personal. People get nasty. When you are an elected official, you are a target. The way you address that is to deal with challenge and stress like an adult – not try to gut the public’s right to know what’s going on in government.


Nov 15

Cory Booker teaches everything you need to know about elected officials & Twitter

Before, during and after Hurricane Sandy, Newark Mayor Cory Booker ran into pretty much every situation a local elected official is likely to meet on Twitter. I am not prone to hero worship, but if you get elected to office and want to know how it’s done, take a look at his Twitter stream from that period.

My humble list below – certainly very subjective – offers 41 ways that Booker used social media during the crisis. The situations below are familiar to any of us who’ve been involved in government and used social media – though it’s pretty rare to run into all these situations within one event!

It’s no secret that Booker is a Twitter superstar, and he’s already considered a role model for local elected officials and social media. Here’s my analysis. This is worth looking at if you are an elected official thinking of using Twitter more. There are many reasons to do so, but you can also see it’s a lot of work.

1. Providing useful information

Cory Booker Tweet during the Sandy storm

2. Repeating useful information

One thing you find time and time again is that people don’t want to read through your social media stream for advice or information. They want the info for themselves at the moment they think it’s useful. So, for example, Booker tweeted the phone number to report problems and needs more than 110 times during a period of several days. Just a few examples:

3. Answering basic questions from people directly involved in the situation

4. Answering questions from people concerned about other people

5. Providing resources to people affected by a situation

6. Telling people that sometimes you don’t know the answer

7. Deflecting questions that make no or little sense

I mean, maybe it makes sense to ask your mayor what to do with spoiled food, or let him know that your needs mean the buses need to start running; but I don’t see it.

8. Dealing with smart-asses. You get bonus points if you use wit.

9. Providing inspiration in times of trouble

10. Urging someone on

The above Tweet might take a bit of translating. There in the middle of the storm, someone says they are dropping out of Newark Public Schools; Booker says, “Let’s talk…”

11. Articulating common sense

Yep, in an emergency you should call 911; but in a crisis, sometimes it takes a leader to know that with confidence.

12. Accepting the concern that pours from others

13. Getting reports of trouble, and getting the government involved

14. Reassuring people who are concerned about others

15. Trying to identify who really needs help right away and who’s just making a fuss

16. Deciding where and when to go out and talk with people

17. Reporting on what you are doing as an elected official

18. Articulating common sense in the middle of a situation

19. Addressing frustration and rumors

This is just one example of the streams of folks who wanted acknowledgement of dire situations and rumors.

21. Telling a funny story

22. Making puns

23. Being pleasant to those with weird ideas

24. Re-Tweeting or sharing other posts with useful info

25. Giving people bad news

26. Calming the over-excited

27. Addressing the paranoid

28. Sharing the history of the community

Mostly elected officials share history through social media during calmer times; I give Booker credit for remembering this historic date in the middle of the crisis.

29. Listening to the angry or upset

These are not Booker’s Tweets; they’re from one citizen within a short period of time. Just imagine what his Twitter stream looked like.

30. Trying to sort out confusing information and situations

 31. Addressing assholes

And yep, they come out – if that’s the right term – in times of crisis.

32. Thanking others for what they do for community

33. Mobilizing volunteers and help

34. Telling volunteers in the situations when they can’t help yet

35. Mobilizing and acknowledging the business community for what it can do

36. Acknowledging outsiders who communicate during a situatoin

This is an interesting one that I noticed myself when my city, Lakewood, was dealing with the murder of four police officers in November 2009. I and we received many social media posts and written notes from people who had one or another connection to Lakewood, and thus felt touched personally by our own version of disaster.

37. Acknowledging the good in your community

38. Educating people on how your government works with other governments and officials

39. Fielding questions that technically belong to other governments

The average citizen has no reason to care whether the mayor has anything to do with schools; he or she just wants answers. Part of the job of the local elected official is to relay what she or he knows from other governments (with great caution, as if you’re wrong, people assign you the responsibility)

 40. Rejoicing with your community when something good happens

41. Accepting the thanks of the community

And that last one is very sincere. I was always amazed how many people, including complete strangers, thanked me for serving on a City Council; and I sure never had to deal with a hurricane.

So there you go … there are 41 things you can do for and with your citizens on Twitter. Why wouldn’t you be part of the conversation?

Sep 14

My guest column in The News Tribune: We all have a right to know what our government agencies are doing

Walter Neary's guest column in The News Tribune about open government on behalf of the Washington Coalition for Open GovernmentClick here to read a guest column I wrote on behalf of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. It begins with …

You would think that in a democracy, all you have to do to participate in public policy is find out when people meet and then attend. You would think that all you have to do to see the records that government produces is simply ask to see the records.

You would, of course, be wrong. Some meetings are not announced. Some records prove difficult, or impossible, to get access to.

And of course that’s why I am so proud to be on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which advocates on behalf of access to government for all people.

Jul 11

Don’t Cross the Streams: confusing personal and governmental messages

A video by consultant Kristi Fifelski offers up great tips for elected officials (or candidates, for that matter) using social media. Most of the rules she offers up are pretty conventional, but one rule at the end was clever and worth extra notice. For one thing, the tip is a shoutout to a great line in the movie Ghostbusters: “Don’t cross the streams.”

scene from movie Ghostbusters

What this means in practical terms to someone in government is, don’t let your personal social media stream touch your government social media stream. Government officials are likely to have both personal and private social media accounts. It is much easier than you’d think to accidentally share a personal message on your social media account, or a government message on your personal account. As Fifelski notes in the video, a tool like Tweetdeck, where you manage multiple accounts side by side,  makes it very easy for you to send a message from the wrong account. That can be very bad if your personal message doesn’t belong on a government account.

On my phone, where I use Hootsuite, small icons indicate whether a Tweet is going to come from my work accounts or personal account. Whenever I share anything from that phone, I look three times to make sure I have the right icon. You would be amazed how often a Tweet coming from my work account suddenly magically jumps to a work account, and vice versa. It is very important to get into the habit of checking at least twice to make sure you’re sharing from the right account. The definition of an accident is that it’s something you didn’t plan. And accidents happen.

Besides the risk of embarrassment that Fifelski explains, there is another reason to avoid crossing the streams. That reason has to do with public records laws. Let’s talk Facebook. A lot of politicians still use their personal Facebook accounts to share government information and talk to people about public policy. In many states, that means the personal Facebook account has now become a public document, and people can request access to it. For many politicians, this could be a disaster. For others, it could be an embarrassment. For others, it might just be the cost of doing business as a politician in 2012. Wherever you come down on the topic, this is something to be aware of.

In Washington state, the public has every right to be confused about how politicians cross streams or don’t cross streams. That’s because different rules apply to different politicians. If you are a city council member, your social media account becomes a public document if you use it for government purposes. But if you are a state legislator, exempt from the public records act, the rules does not apply. So I often had to explain to people why I as a city councilman worked vigorously to have a separate government social media account, and keep public business off my personal account, while my state lawmaker friends posted all sorts of government news from their personal accounts.

Here’s the full video: