To the Editor, The Sundance Times:
From the letters of Martha Keith and Larry Goodson to the Editor and two articles by Sarah Pridgeon published in the December 22 issue of The Sundance Times, the following is my understanding of the events surrounding the loss of the Crook County Museum District’s opportunity to obtain $100,000 for the replacement and repair of windows in Old Stoney through a lease/loan under the Energy Lease Program.
At the December 6 Sundance City Council meeting, Pam Thompson of the Museum District Board of Directors presented a request that the City sponsor the Museum District’s application for a $100,000 lease/loan. As reported in The Sundance Times and stated in the City Council Minutes of that meeting, after a thorough discussion of that request by the Council and the Mayor, the City Council, with Larry Goodson abstaining, unanimously passed a motion approving the City’s sponsorship of the District’s application. What was then required to finalize that sponsorship was the Mayor’s signature on the cover sheet of the application.
Sometime before December 6 in what was in fact, and should have been treated as, an entirely unrelated event, in a conversation with a reporter, presumably Sarah Pridgeon of the Sundance Times, Martha Keith mentioned an issue with the licensing of City employees as water operators. The reporter asked City employees about that issue. City employees answered the reporter’s questions and the reporter included that information in one of the articles published in The Sundance Times.
On December 14 the Museum District was informed that the Mayor had decided that the City would not sponsor the District’s loan application. As stated in Larry Goodson’s letter, after “the Mayor polled the other City Council members to get their opinion on not signing the application, due to this (Martha Keith asking the reporter about City licensing) and previous concerns”, the Mayor did not sign the cover sheet. From the fact that the Motion to approve the City’s sponsorship of application was passed by unanimous vote and from the related Sundance Times article, it appears that “previous concerns” about the sponsorship were resolved before the Motion was passed. The time within which the application could be submitted with the required signature of the Mayor ran and the District’s opportunity to obtain the $100,000 for Old Stoney windows was lost. The reason for that decision, as I read Mr. Goodson’s letter to the Editor, was that Martha Keith had talked to the “media” instead of asking him or someone else at the City about the status of the licensing of City employees.
Martha Keith had an absolute right to talk with the media, or anyone else she chose to talk with, about the licensing issue. Every Sundance citizen has the same right regarding that or any issue involving City business and its conduct. She had, and no Sundance citizen has, absolutely no duty or obligation to ask Larry Goodson or anyone else at the City about the licensing issue, or any other City issue, rather than talking with the media about it.
It is not revealed in either the letters or the articles in The Sundance Times when Martha Keith talked with the reporter or when one or more of the City employees were first licensed. Larry Goodson’s letter states that the City Council was told on December 1 that the DEQ would not allow the City to continue to operate on John Kiplinger’s licenses since he had moved to Arizona. The Council was told by the Mayor that at that time City employees were “on the way to getting the licenses”. Larry Goodson’s letter also states that “there is no and was not a problem” with the water system being watched over. The DEQ obviously saw a continued lack of licensed operators on City staff on location in Sundance as a problem and it may well have been that at the time Martha Keith talked with the reporter the City had no local licensed operators, as I gather was the case from what is in the letters. However, I think that question is of no consequence. What I infer from Larry Goodson’s statement that there was no problem is that Martha Keith was wrong about the licensing of City staff and that it was, therefore, wrong for her to mention that issue to the reporter. But, even if she was incorrect in believing that City staff was not licensed when she spoke to the reporter, her (and every other citizen’s) constitutional right to freedom of speech regarding public matters is not conditioned upon whether what is spoken is correct. Citizens are free to speak out on public matters even if their understanding of the facts is wrong.
I do not agree with Larry Goodson’s characterization of Martha Keith talking with the reporter about the licensing issue as an “accusation” that “discredited” him, the rest of the Council, the City staff and the Mayor. That it was an “accusation” is, from what I see, merely his perception of what her talking with a reporter was. I see nothing in the Sundance Times articles that discredits any of them. The facts reported explain how and why that issue arose and that it is being resolved by three City staff obtaining licenses. If there were any discredit, which I do not see, the source of it did not lie in Martha Keith talking with a reporter, but in the City not having staff licensed earlier.
Martha Keith was not acting as an employee or representative of the Museum District in talking with the reporter about City water issues, she was acting as a private citizen. In accepting employment with the District she did not surrender her rights as a private citizen or her right to talk to a reporter about any issue concerning the City. It appears to me that the only connection between Martha Keith talking with the reporter about the licensing issue and the Mayor’s and the City Council’s decision not to follow through on its decision to sponsor the District’s loan application is that she talked with the reporter, who then asked the City about the licensing issue and wrote an article that was published about City operations that the Mayor and/or the City Council, for some reason, would very much have preferred not be the subject of general public knowledge.
These events and the reactions to them cause me concern in several areas. I do not subscribe to Larry Goodson’s assertion that the District’s opportunity to obtain $100,000 for Old Stoney windows was “lost” to the District by Martha Keith’s actions. It seems very clear to me that the only cause of the loss of that opportunity was the reaction of the Mayor and the City Council to the fact that Martha Keith had talked to a reporter about a City issue that is not related in any manner to the Museum District or to its application. It concerns me that it seems some other persons have, for what reasons or motives I do not know, subscribed to Larry Goodson’s conclusion that the cause of the loss of the funds for Old Stoney was the result of the actions of Martha Keith, which conclusion, I think, is not supported by any fact or by reason. I do not believe that she need explain to or answer to anyone at the City or to anyone else concerning her actions. It appears to me that the action of the Mayor and the Council was, in effect, the revocation of a duly passed motion to sponsor the application by an informal and, perhaps, irregular process and it concerns me that such an action might again occur. It seems to me that the intent of that action by the Mayor and the City Council was, or at least that its effect will be, to discourage Martha Keith and, by implication, citizens generally, from asking questions about the actions of the City, about issues facing the City, or about whether issues exist concerning the City and its operations and, in particular, from talking with the media about such questions. I believe that we are fortunate to have a newspaper of the caliber of The Sundance Times in Sundance and that it has reporters who, supported by the Editor, are willing to ask questions about City issues, operations and governance and to report what they find. I also believe that the Editor and staff of The Sundance Times and of any other media should not have to give any thought to the question of whether, if it becomes known who they have talked with or who has asked them questions about the City, those persons may be subjected to, as Martha Keith described it in her letter, “retribution” for talking with or asking questions of the media.