What’s up with Ashland City Attorney Katrina Brown? by David Runkel

What’s up with Ashland City Attorney Katrina Brown?
Two weeks ago she turned down the request of two online reporters to attend a City Council executive session, even though state law clearly states reporters are permitted at these sessions.  Her action was a mistake, nearly every member of City Council said at a study session this week.  It was in fact illegal.

But, it was a mistake she shouldn’t have made.  Her claim was that she didn’t know they were reporters.  But, Ms. Brown refused to take the word of Mayor Julie Akins about the two, Dean Silver of The Chronicle and Holly Dillemuth of Ashland News.  The mayor had allowed the two to observe the Council’s meeting on zoom, but Ms. Brown overruled the mayor and excluded them.

If Ms. Brown is not taking the word of the mayor on such a simple thing as who’s a reporter and who’s not, that’s signals a very serious problem for the Ashland city government.  The mayor was elected two years by a wide margin and although the charter change to a strong city manager reduces the power of the mayor, she deserves the respect of all city employees.

Who else is better to know who’s a reporter or not than someone who runs for political office and serves on the Council.  Probably only one other person in Ashland who is a better judge and that’s Mayor Akins who had a 30-year journalism career and has taught journalism at Southern Oregon University.

On top of Ms. Brown’s refusal to accept the mayor’s word, she forced a lengthy, convoluted discussion by the Council on a proposal by her to create a city ordinance to define who’s a reporter and who’s not.  State laws and opinions by the attorney general already do this and the Council on a 5-1 vote decided against it, but to ask those saying they are reporters to provide an email address, a phone number and their affiliation.

The news business is in the midst of a massive change from the days when I covered the Baltimore and Philadelphia City Halls as a newspaper reporter. 

The respected Pew Research Center last year issued a report finding that 86 percent of adult Americans get some news from their smartphone, computer or tablet, that nearly three times the  32 percent who say they get any news at all from print publications.

On the question of how do you prefer to get your news, 52 percent said digitally while only 5 percent said print.

I suspect these percentages are the same in Ashland, largely because The Daily Tidings was closed and the Medford Mail-Tribune’s reporting staff and the amount of local news in it  have shrunk substantially in recent years. Meanwhile, the online Ashland News was established this year with a former Tidings editor in charge, joining the Ashland Chronicle, several blogs and the often amusing five-minute summaries of Council meetings.  All of these, including the Mail-Tribune, are available online.

Throughout the United States reporters for digital publications are recognized as journalists.  The President of the United States takes questions from online media reporters.  They are accepted as members of the White House Correspondents Association and the Capitol Hill Correspondents, meaning they have full access to the White House and the Congress, just as print reporters.

There was a day when only print reporters, nearly all of us white men, were members. But that was decades ago and has changed, thankfully.  Finally, It’s worth noting that the Portland City Council last week approved the settlement of a public records dispute.  It cost the city a quarter of a million dollars. While not directly on point, it reinforces my point that openness and transparency is paramount in our democracy.

 In the future when Ashland’s city attorney doubts who’s a reporter, she should listen to those who do know.  Or get out of the way and leave it to Mayor Akins to decide.

David Runkel, Ashland