Citizen group cited for open government watchdog efforts
Okanogan County Watch, the group of volunteers who take detailed notes every week at county commissioners’ meetings, is being featured on a public TV show for shining a light on the functions and inner workings of local government.
Tom Layson, the writer and producer of the Emmy award-winning Northwest Now, is highlighting County Watch on an episode devoted to open government and access to public records.
“I thought OCW [Okanogan County Watch] had a compelling story to tell because it’s really a classic American story — where a small group of volunteer citizens band together in a remote area to make a difference — in this case, to make their government better and more transparent and responsive,” said Layson this week by email.
Layson first learned about County Watch last year when the group won an award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government. The Key Award is given to individuals or organizations that have done something notable for the cause of open government.
“County Watch is surprised and greatly honored to be recognized by those who have defended open government in Washington state for years,” said Isabelle Spohn, who started the group about five years ago, when she began taking notes and sharing them informally with people interested in county affairs.
Spohn’s efforts expanded as other volunteers began to attend meetings and write up the proceedings. Their accounts incorporate informal discussions among the commissioners and staff that help provide context but don’t necessarily make it into the official county minutes. At one point, Spohn was coordinating the schedules of 18 volunteer note-takers, but today there are half a dozen.
Over the years, the commissioners have come to appreciate County Watch’s efforts, said volunteer note-taker Gina McCoy, whose regular attendance at meetings helped lead to a spot as a county planning commissioner.
Spohn said the volunteers are inspired by Washington’s law on open public meetings, which says in part, “The people of this state … 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 retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Filling a void
County Watch is newsworthy because groups like this are essentially filling a void in regions where declining revenues make it hard for traditional media to remain viable, said Layson. “Local reporters make heroic efforts to work the long hours required to cover large areas and complex issues, but doing truly original reporting across a region’s various cities, counties and taxing districts is time-consuming and expensive,” he said.
Because of that, a group like County Watch — which not only takes detailed notes during commissioners’ meetings, but videotapes discussions of topics including water and land use, plus public events like candidate forums — plays a vital role.
There are similar efforts in urban and rural areas across the country, said Layson. And while in some areas, independent or alternative journalism outlets are finding a way to fund in-depth coverage of local government, in other places, “it’s volunteers or nothing,” he said.
Layson remains a passionate advocate for an informed citizenry. “My hope is that by continuing to provide a bit of a civics class regarding the importance of a transparent government, people will come back to valuing our form of government, the role of journalists, and the parts they can play in prolonging our democracy,” he said.
“I admit it’s possibly a bit cheesy and high-minded, but the minute I give up on the aspirational parts of what this country is, what citizenship means, and the positive role a truly transparent government can play in our lives — I need to retire,” he said.
Northwest Now casts a wide focus, with programs on politics, the arts, business, health and the environment. Layson is the producer, writer and host. Before taking on Northwest Now six years ago, he worked as a TV news reporter and anchor around the country, including California and the New York metropolitan area, where he anchored live coverage during 9/11. He has interviewed everyone from presidents to governors to ordinary citizens like those in County Watch.
The Northwest Now episode is being broadcast in conjunction with Sunshine Week, which was started by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
Layson is traveling to Okanogan on Monday (March 4), where he’ll interview County Watch volunteers, attend part of the county commissioners’ meeting, and shoot footage of the area.
The episode will be broadcast Friday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. All programs can be seen by clicking on the Northwest Now drop-down menu at www.kbtc.org.
Following County Watch
County Watch’s detailed notes on county commissioners’ meetings and other proceedings are available online. Videos are posted on their YouTube channel. Notes and videos are indexed so people can find the topic they’re interested in.
In addition to taking weekly notes and videos, members of County Watch send out summaries of the meetings to the press, government agencies and interested citizens. Their website also contains information about county boards and committees.
To read current and archived notes of commissioners’ meetings or to volunteer, visit www.countywatch.org.