In recent months, the Box Elder News Journal's two-man newsroom has felt compelled to take its role as a government watchdog more seriously. Brigham City officials have taken note and are fighting back.
The weekly newspaper's Feb. 20 editorial blasted Mayor Pro Tem Tyler Vincent, who is a current council member, for attempting to appoint fellow council member Scott Ericson to the city administrator position that Bruce Leonard will vacate in July when he retires.
"The fact that handing the position over to a city council member was the first consideration, instead of conspicuously posting the position, should trouble any citizen concerned with transparent government, due process, and any other number of values upon which our democracy is based," the Our Perspective piece opined.
Vincent was upset to see the editorial, viewing it as more bad press that hinders the city's progress.
"The whole Journal article was hearsay," Vincent said. While acknowledging the publication's role as a watchdog, he said he prefers that it function more often as a newsletter highlighting community events.
In a phone interview early this week, Ericson bristled over the editorial's contents."
They ran an opinion piece with one side of the story but didn't care enough to get facts to find out what really happened."
But according to Managing Editor Sean Hales and Associate Editor Mike Nelson, those facts have been hard to come by in the wake of broader media coverage of the flap that followed the mayor's bombshell confession of infidelity.
Hales described the closed session and seemingly secretive city administrator selection as the last straw, spurring the Journal to take a stand against what it perceived as an ongoing lack of transparency.
"I wanted to let them know that we're watching and that it appears they're doing something improper," Hales said.
Behind closed doors
In an attempt to quell rumors, Mayor Dennis Fife submitted a written confession to the Journal last November about the affair he carried on with a woman he formerly counseled as a Mormon bishop.
Fife's refusal to resign in the face of several calls for him to step down led the City Council to strip him of the authority to hire, fire and discipline city personnel. Vincent, as mayor pro tem, took on the responsibility to appoint the city administrator.
A series of private meetings discussing Ericson as the appointee took place, but the plan ultimately unraveled "because it looked bad," Ericson said, noting that "from the beginning I was concerned about what the perception would be."
Vincent denied any cronyism, citing Ericson's background and experience as reasons for his selection.
Ericson, 32, has served on Brigham City's council since 2007 and worked for Congressman Rob Bishop for eight years. He also managed Gov. Gary Herbert's re-election campaign last year. With a bachelor's degree in political science and public relations, and a master's degree in human resource management, Ericson objected to the editorial's recommendation that the city hire him as a lobbyist instead of an administrator.
"It made it sound like I'm a political hack that has no ability or experience…trying to worm his way into a job," Ericson said.
During its Feb. 7 meeting, the council minus Ericson, who sat out with his wife broke off into closed session to discuss personnel matters. The agenda stated the appointment would be made publicly afterward. About an hour in, Leonard emerged and told media and remaining stragglers that the appointment would be tabled, Nelson said, noting that he left and later learned the closed discussion continued for another 45 minutes.
That lengthy deliberation resulted in the public posting of the job between Feb. 12 to 19. A total of 24 applications were received, Ericson told The Tribune.
The Journal received information from an unnamed source about what transpired in the closed session.
Nelson said he heard that city employees and officials were being pressured to reveal the names of those informants. He and Hales also were told that they could be subpoenaed to disclose their sources.Joel Campbell, a journalism professor at Brigham Young University, emphasized Utah's shield rule,
which blocks reporters from having to reveal confidential sources unless "the person seeking the information demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that disclosure is necessary to prevent substantial injury or death."
He also faulted the council for not taking a formal and visible vote to table, deny or approve the appointment.
"You can have executive discussions behind closed doors, but you take final action in public," Campbell said.
Kim Mangun, who teaches intermediate reporting classes at the University of Utah, said that with the downsizing of larger media outlets, small community newsrooms are taking on greater significance as they explore their neighborhoods, operate as watchdogs and serve as historians for groups that often go overlooked.
While Hales usually loves his job, he acknowledged that the stress from being so confrontational tied his stomach in knots and led to fierce self-scrutiny.
"I wish I'd been more even-handed in how I worded some things,but I wouldn't have changed the message of the editorial that what they're doing looks bad," Hales said. "The thing that frustrates me is that it's being painted that we didn't do our job. That couldn't be further from the truth."
Job offer timeline
Jan. 18 • Retiring city administrator Bruce Leonard approaches Councilman Scott Ericson to gauge his interest.
Jan. 19 • The two speak at length
Jan. 28 • Mayor Dennis Fife calls Ericson to ask whether he is interested.
Jan. 28-Feb. 7 • A series of meetings follows, only in some of which Ericson took part
Feb. 7 • A closed-door meeting ends with no appointment and instead the position being posted publicly
Feb. 12 to 19 • A total of 24 applications are received for the city administrator position