Free speech in Shelter Bay
April 5, 2023
Is democracy dangerous to the health of Shelter Bay community board members? Or, is the board’s leadership allergic to free speech? Is it possible that the Weekly News is just plain wrong in its efforts to cover Shelter Bay governance?
The Weekly News has taken the standard journalistic approach to cover Shelter Bay: attending meetings; interviewing people; reading documents – including court filings; and tracking social media posts. Staff have spoken to people on and off the record, on background and for source material, including holding names in confidence.
Unlike the Town of La Conner, the La Conner School District or the Skagit County government, Shelter Bay is a private organization on private property. Public governments are regulated by the Revised Code of Washington, or RCW. And, of course, public governments adhere to the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment's critical clause here being no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
The Shelter Bay board leadership has said no to Weekly News requests to attend meetings and has asked staff to leave meetings. Board President Wendy Poulton responded Sunday: “As I've said before, Shelter Bay is a private community and our Town Hall meetings are for community members only. The presence of a reporter from the local press can change some people's willingness to participate and that is not fair or helpful to the members.”
Some have said that is based on legal advice. Some observe that lawyers tell their clients what the client wants to hear.
Is there a push from residents, a groundswell from the grassroots, to keep the Weekly News from covering their governoring body? Is this decision based on the best interests of the Shelter Bay community or is it in the board leadership's self interest?
There is a difference between a private organization and a closed one. Public organizations adhere to public standards. Private organizations can be selective on what they share. But is the Shelter Bay board representing the will of its residents?
More Shelter Bay residents may read the Weekly News than the community’s communications. Residents can say which source they trust more. But they will not know what their elected leadership is discussing or deciding if their actions are not covered by an independent news source.
The Washington Post slogan is “democracy dies in darkness.” Last week Shelter Bay board member Dan McCaughan concluded his “citizen’s view” in the Weekly News with these lines: “I was elected to promote transparency, hold each other accountable and demonstrate respect for the rules. I want the community to know that I have their best interests in mind.”
The next day McCaughan was cc-ed on this email from board Vice President Joe Hurley: “With Dan’s recent paper article I don't see that we have a choice but to suspend him from the Board for 90 days.” It quoted Shelter Bay rules: “The Board President or Vice President, with the concurrence of the board, may immediately suspend the board or community member if the violation is of such a serious nature as to potentially create a liability for the Community.”
McCaughan and director Judy Kontos had ethics complaints brought against them for “Failure to Support the Decisions of the Board." The Shelter Bay board executive committee and its ethics committee find no space between analysis and criticism of a board decision and potential liability to the community. Its requirements of lockstep obedience and its punishing criticism with sanctions is the antithesis of democracy.
The Harvard Law Review defines a kangaroo court as “A self-appointed tribunal or mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded.” This leadership says it is following its rules and regulations. But how is it interpreting them?
The Shelter Bay Community board has nine members. Four have been appointed by fellow board members. Three are on the executive committee. Having not been elected, these directors can be fairly questioned if they represent the residents.
Is Shelter Bay a country club of 2,000 people or a community seeking democratic discussion, debate and decision making? It is a private organization, but if it is closed to the press what is being kept from its residents?