We at the Chinook Observer seldom if ever struggle to come up with a full load of news for our weekly newsprint edition — news we update much more frequently on our website and Facebook page. Coastal communities always attract a frothy mix of people, all pursuing dreams and schemes. Pacific County is richly endowed with highly functional and woefully dysfunctional folks, plus thousands of others who fall somewhere in the middle on the behavioral scale.
Underlying these personalities are Pacific County’s rich layers of colorful industries — everything from oysters to art, forestry to marijuana — plus a profound history extending back hundreds of years. All the interlocking layers of government here — the U.S. Coast Guard, Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, Customs and Immigration Enforcement, Washington departments of parks, ecology and natural resources, the cities, Pacific County and dozens more — could keep three times our number of reporters busy.
It is, in a way, flattering whenever county residents become irritated that we haven’t managed to cover a story as quickly or thoroughly as it deserves. Demands for coverage speak to our central role in helping inform readers about everything that happens here. On the other hand, from time to time, our decision to cover a particular story also excites community commentary.
I think it’s worthwhile looking at a recent case in detail.
In 2018, our stories that perhaps generated the most public feedback related to the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s offices are a source of news in every county across the country, so it’s not surprising this is often true here. Sheriff Scott Johnson was always a courteous source of information whenever crimes being investigated by his office rose to the level of being newsworthy. Like every local sheriff for at least the past 30 years, soon after his election eight years ago he realized the challenges of trying to provide 24/7/365 protection to the county’s 1,223 square miles with a small number of officers, in a system where the budget is not under the sheriff’s control. Especially on the Long Beach Peninsula, where there are lots of houses and lots of property crime, every sheriff has a difficult time living up to expectations.
For at least a couple years prior to the recent general election, sheriff’s office operations generated more than the usual amount of second guessing by some citizens and elected leaders, and many in law enforcement. We looked into a variety of allegations that caused this grumbling. Examples include unusually high sums spent on detailing cars and slowness in serving domestic-violence protection orders. In the ongoing crush of other news, and balancing what we discovered versus its newsworthiness, we were very conservative in our reporting.
But in a couple instances when Johnson’s statements appeared to be at odds with the facts, we did report it on the front page. This wasn’t done to be judgmental or to improperly influence the election. While Johnson always appeared sincere in his belief he was telling the truth, there were ample reasons to bring alternate possibilities to the public’s attention. Accuracy is high on the list of what citizens expect from a sheriff.
We also diligently worked to learn as much as possible about Johnson’s general election opponent, Robin Souvenir. His employer at the time, the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, was uncooperative. This wasn’t surprising, in that tribes are sovereign governments zealously exempt from the usual public records laws. Although it would be in their own best interests to be more open, it is understandable that they choose not to be. But insofar as we have been able to learn, Souvenir was good chief of police for the tribe and is otherwise qualified to be sheriff.
We did, however, quickly learn that Matt Padgett, Souvenir’s brother-in-law and subordinate in the tribal police force, had been the subject of a Washington State Patrol investigation. WSP initially denied it had conducted a check on Padgett. After we brought it more forcefully to their attention, we did obtain the investigation file — but not until after the election. Souvenir’s post-election decision to appoint Padgett to a civil deputy’s post raised other distinct issues that we examined and reported on, concluding there was nothing unethical about the hire. In-laws and other relations working together in small rural departments is unremarkable.
Since Padgett will be working as a senior officer in the sheriff’s office, the closed WSP investigation gained renewed relevancy, and so we reported on that. Our story speaks for itself. Moving forward, it is to be hoped Padgett will be more professional in his interactions with staff. If he isn’t, Souvenir will be in the uncomfortable position of having to discipline or fire his wife’s brother. This isn’t an ideal situation, but Padgett has impressed a number of unbiased observers as being a good officer, so maybe it will work out. We will certainly report on it if we learn anything to the contrary.
All this is much more explanation than I would ordinarily get into. It’s not that these internal news decisions are a deep, dark secret — I discussed some of this with individual citizens over the course of the year. But generally, covering the news shouldn’t become the news, and we at the Observer work hard to keep it that way. However, partisan passions run high nowadays, and some questioned whether we were “out to get” Johnson, and then for some mysterious reason “out to get” Souvenir and/or Padgett. We weren’t, and we aren’t.
If you ever have questions about coverage, don’t hesitate to call, write, pay us a compliment or make a complaint. (As a side note, we wish some people would be more polite to one another when commenting on our stories on Facebook. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, with your grandmother watching. Ultimately, we’re all in this together. We are bound together by much more than who serves us as sheriff. And, for that matter, who serves us as president. Play nice.)
What we are doing is following the news wherever it leads, as we have for the past 118 years. We believe in local people. We believe in providing unbiased information to the best of our abilities, to help Pacific County be the best it can be. The Chinook Observer is the ongoing biography of this beautiful place — an honest account of its people and everything they get up to. Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your lives.