Ideals of journalism alive and well on tiny Whidbey Island blog
A retired Whidbey Island real-estate appraiser's blog proves the purpose of the press — scrutiny and light-shining — is alive and well, even if the business model isn't.
Seattle Times staff columnist
For a blogger who just brought down a mayor — sent him to jail, in fact — Skip Demuth sure doesn't do much blogging.
"Your last post was more than five months ago," I say. "Shouldn't you be riding high about now?"
"I don't know; after all that, I guess I've kind of lost my muse," Demuth says.
Demuth, 68, is a retired Whidbey Island real-estate appraiser and now, most notoriously, the sole proprietor of skipdemuth.com. That's a website where, before last April, he mostly meandered on about music, bike riding and his winter life in California.
"Reporting from an older viewpoint, with pieces on travel, exercise, books, movies, and people I know," is how his website describes itself.
I'm betting Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick wishes it had stayed so soft.
Because on April 10 of this year, Demuth put up a post entitled "How Many Hats Are Too Many?" It was no Dr. Seuss review, but a complicated investigation into a small development project on Whidbey Island involving, at its root, the town mayor.
Based on a review of hundreds of pages of city documents, it suggested the mayor was improperly favoring a building project on wetlands he had sold to his stepdaughter.
"He was acting as the planner, the consultant, the property owner and the mayor, all on the same project," Demuth says. "I'm an old hippie radical, so I'm skeptical of The Man. This just didn't smell right."
Very few people read this blog — it gets about the number of hits in a month that The Seattle Times website gets each minute. But the stuff he was posting on it was too true to be ignored.
Within a week, a Langley planning employee, prompted by Demuth's blog posts, filed a whistle-blower complaint against the mayor. A few weeks after that, the Island County prosecutor's office launched a criminal investigation.
Last week, Mayor Kwarsick pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor, for falsifying a document. Basically he concocted a ruling that made the land easier to develop, backdated it to a time before he was in charge, and filed it into government records as if it had been approved by city staff.
What happened next, though, stunned everyone. A judge ignored the plea agreement, which fined the mayor $2,500, and instead sentenced him to serve 15 days in the Island County lockup in Coupeville, starting Feb. 4.
"I was shocked," Demuth says. "I didn't start out on this with the assumption that he'd even committed any crime."
The mayor has insisted he plans to stay on as mayor. But on Thursday the Island County prosecutor sued to remove him from office. He said it has been the law for more than a century that officials convicted of "malfeasance of office" are barred from holding public office, forever.
"I guess that's kind of harsh," Demuth says. "But so is breaking the public trust."
Still, it is Demuth who has been getting much of the blowback. He was a reporter at some little newspapers back in the 1960s — he got his start at "California's Oldest Newspaper," the Placerville Mountain Democrat — so he gets that it's usually the messenger who is shot.
Still, he's been accused of harassing a popular mayor, and for hyping what is a minor transgression. Last week, even former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, who owns an inn in Langley, lit into Demuth using his wife Pam's Facebook account.
"Shame on you Skip for starting this," Schell wrote. "You should stay in your new California home and let us alone. Paul."
"Let us alone" is exactly the opposite of the real lesson here.
What warms my reporter's heart about this story is how it shows that the purpose of the press — scrutiny and light-shining — is alive and well, even if the business model isn't. That this all came from a blogger who barely blogs and who nobody reads in a town with only a thousand residents just makes the point that much more forcefully.
That it's not the messenger. It's not the medium. The message still counts.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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