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I saw Norm Wooldridge mad

June 30th, 2012 by Steven Gardner

Ten years ago this September former Kitsap Sun reporter Lynnette Meachum introduced me to people and places I would be covering as a new reporter here. One of our first stops was Bainbridge Island’s city hall, which back then was just two years old and fresh. Meachum was leaving to go to law school.

As a new reporter one of the benefits is not knowing who the “old boys” are in the “old boy network.” In all seriousness it’s sometimes worthwhile to be ignorant before a reporter begins weighing the value of opinions based on who they come from.

So Norm Wooldridge, who was memorialized Saturday, was another face on the dais for me when I began covering Bainbridge Island city government. Little did I know what a force he had been on the island, particularly for his successful work in making the entire island a city.

Had I known, then honestly it might have been a little more tough to accept how much I was angering him one day.

We at the Sun had not paid much attention to Bainbridge Island before Meachum began focusing more effort there and before it was decided to dedicate my entire coverage there as well as launching the Bainbridge Islander weekly paper. Prior to then we had ceded dominance to the Bainbridge Iland Review, which had a stellar reputation going back to Walt Woodward’s protestations over internment. That reputation, in my opinion, was mostly deserved. It was a good paper with a good staff and four times our circulation, a fact I learned to enjoy fighting as an underdog.

In the long tradition of recurring themes, there were nasty divides among members of the Bainbridge Island city council, city staff and the city’s administration. At one point the council decided to have a retreat to try to work on its relationships. For the second time since I had been there as a reporter Christine Rolfes asked me to not attend. The first time she asked me regarding another retreat I assured her I wasn’t planning to attend anyway. But these retreats are considered under the law to be every bit the public meeting a regular council meeting is. I was noncommittal on the request on the second one. Then I went. Rolfes, in a friendly way, asked what I was doing there. I don’t remember my response, but it was probably something along the lines of this was a public meeting and what they were dealing with was news.

Inside the meeting the facilitator asked me to explain myself. Both requests were technically violations of the state’s open meeting laws, a fact I didn’t know at the time. At any rate, I kept it simple, saying anyone had the right to be there, again emphasizing that what they were focusing on was news.

I knew my decision could be unpopular among council members. It was also unpopular with the facilitator they hired. Some were not mad and others, if they were mad, kept their anger under wraps.

Wooldridge didn’t. He very nearly suggested canceling the meeting because I was there.

I don’t blame anyone for being angry at me that day, for not knowing state law and for becoming uncomfortable that someone new was coming along and changing the unwritten rules. For some time the Review had been regularly accepting the council members’ requests to not attend these events, because council members told them they’d do better without the press present. I was sending a message that we were not going to let them operate out of the sunshine, that they’d just have to get used to us being there. I know that might sound self-important, but I really believed it was important, then and now.

Sure, Wooldridge was angry, but not overtly hostile. So in my experience the accolades I heard about him Saturday were well deserved. From my experience, even though I know he didn’t appreciate our efforts to usurp the Review’s presence, he was respectful of me and always returned my phone calls, even after he was long gone from the council.

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