Timely Reporting or Something Else?
The article reported that Coeur d'Alene Planning Commissioner Mary Souza had been accused of having a conflict of interest when she did not recuse herself from a special use permit hearing requested by applicant Jay Weedon. Weedon was proposing to start a children's birthday party business in a vacant warehouse zoned light industrial. His business would have been across the street from Souza's business that rents out party supplies. Souza made several comments in the hearing about the suitability of the location. The comments are reflected in the hearing minutes.
I had to re-read the Press article and the hearing minutes several times, because something was wrong. I finally concluded that what was bothering me was the article's timing and the absence of complete information in it. The article was very badly written or badly edited or both. If it was news at all, it was yesterday's news.
The Press article about the hearing and the allegation ran on August 12, 2006. The hearing was on May 9, 2006, more than 90 days earlier. The Press completely omitted the hearing date from its article. That significant omission had to be a conscious decision by someone. Why was the hearing date omitted? The story might have been newsworthy back in May, but what changed between May and August to make it newsworthy now? Nothing of consequence. If anything, its newsworthiness diminished with the passage of time.
The Press article failed to state the facts that led to Mr. Weedon's accusation that Commissioner Souza had violated conflict of interest laws. What were the relevant facts on which Mr. Weedon based his accusation? The Press article's failure to acquire and report those facts and apply them to the elements needed to show "conflict of interest" was remarkably bad reporting and grossly unfair to Commissioner Souza.
The Press headline, "Souza accused of violating conflict of interest laws," was inflammatory. The issue of "conflict of interest," if the issue ever existed, was resolved long before the Press's August 12 article. I question the Press's editorial judgment in using an inflammatory headline that misleadingly suggests the accusation is as yet unresolved.
After reviewing the minutes of the hearing, I concluded Commissioner Souza exercised bad judgment in some of her comments. I believe she inappropriately relied on her own personal knowledge and observations about the applicant's proposed business site rather than on the testimony in the hearing. A Planning Commissioner is like a judge or juror in a trial. A judge's or juror's decision must be based on the evidence admitted and presented in the trial. A Planning Commissioner's decision must also be based only on the evidence offered in the hearing. It would have been proper for Commissioner Souza to use her personal knowledge and experience to formulate questions for hearing witnesses, but it was improper for her to offer comments as a witness from a Commissioner's chair. She could not properly be both a witness and a Commissioner. It would have been better for her to recuse herself and then testify as a witness in opposition before the remaining Commissioners. Deputy City Attorney Warren Wilson's comments in the hearing minutes and in the Press article strongly suggest he believed her comments were inappropriate.
Commissioner Souza's error in judgment does not constitute or prove "conflict of interest." The Press article failed to differentiate between a conflict of interest and reliance on information from outside the hearing. So did Mr. Weedon.
If Commissioner Souza erred in her judgment, there was a remedy available to Mr. Weedon. City Code provides ten days to file an appeal of an adverse Commission decision with the Coeur d'Alene City Council. I strongly suspect that if he had done that, he would have prevailed. There are at least two members of the Council who see Commissioner Souza as a serious challenger for a council seat. But the fact is, I believe Mr. Weedon could have won his appeal based on the facts alone. Commissioner Souza's error in judgment would have made it even more palatable for the Council to overrule the Planning Commission decision, something it does without hesitation when it believes it's necessary or politically expedient.
According to the next to last paragraph in the Press article, Mr. Weedon said he didn't have the money to appeal the Commission's decision to the Council. That's interesting. Appeal bonds or fees are relatively modest and may even be waived. If he was sincerely interested in starting his business, he would have known (and his attorney should have advised him) that the appeal to the Council was his best hope of getting the essential special use permit. If his startup business were properly and adequately capitalized, the appeal fee would have been small in comparison to other costs of starting his business.
Mr. Weedon chose not to appeal. The Kootenai County Prosecutor found Commissioner Souza had not knowingly violated any laws, and he declined prosecution. That should have been the end of a relatively inconsequential story.
So why, three months after the May 9 Planning Commission hearing, did the Press suddenly see this as a timely news story? The timing of the story, resurrected from obscurity, suggests it was planted by someone wanting to discredit Commissioner Souza. The content of the story, or maybe the absence of content would better characterize it, is inconsistent with good reporting and good editing. It lacked substantive and complete information. The story's timing, its inflammatory headline, and its suggestive but flimsy and filmy information make it reasonable for readers to question the Coeur d'Alene Press's motives in publishing it.