What’s local news got to do with voting and the future of democracy?
That’s a question Necia Quast of San Juan Island and the local county chapter and state League of Women Voters (LWV) are addressing.
The LWV of Washington’s recent report, “The Decline of Local News and Its Impact on Democracy,” details the local news crisis and asserts that the situation is “so gravely diminished that our democracy is at risk.” The nonpartisan organization plans to focus on this report throughout 2023, with discussions and educational forums to build consensus among its members for developing a policy.
For more than a century, the LWV has worked to empower voters through informed participation and to defend democracy.
To increase local democratic involvement, the LWV of the San Juans began a pilot project last June, creating an observer corps of volunteer members attending local government meetings and reporting what transpired on the League’s website and Facebook page, and to local media.
The reports serve to inform local voters about the workings of local government, democracy in action.
Making it visible
Quast is the organizer. After retiring from the U.S. Foreign Service, she moved to Friday Harbor about 10 years ago and became an active community leader and volunteer. After serving as the LWVSJ president, she and another volunteer, Barbara Sharp, got the pilot project going. They attended meetings of the San Juan County Council, Friday Harbor Town Council, San Juan County Public Hospital District, San Juan Island School Board and Port of Friday Harbor Board of Commissioners.
In November, “we got membership support for making it a formal program, and are due to launch in January, with five members signed up to observe,” she said. “Right now, we are doing some of the final work needed to set it up as a formal program of the LWVSJ, including putting together goals and policies for the program and guidelines for the observers.”
Observer corps volunteers watch and report on many of the government meetings on-line, but Quast has attended all the meetings she has reported in person in part “to make the League more visible to the people in the room.”
Disappearing local newspapers, disappearing local news
The state League study reports that more than one fourth of the country’s newspapers – 2,100 in all – disappeared between 2005 and 2020. Half the journalism jobs also went away, as did half of the newspaper subscribers. The losses left residents of 1,800 communities in “news deserts,” meaning they had no local newspaper.
An in-depth look at how the local news crisis is playing out in Washington state reveals that more than two dozen Washington newspapers have closed, and more than two-thirds of the state’s newspaper editors and reporters have lost their jobs. There have been large cutbacks in news coverage, especially local news, and significant decreases in circulation and readership.
According to the study, a series of national reports tie the decline of local newspapers nationwide to increased political polarization, higher government costs, reduced community engagement, fewer candidates for local offices and lower voter turnout.
Voter turnout in San Juan County is generally higher than the state average, but this year, all the candidates for local positions ran unopposed, except for the sheriff. One county council member, the prosecuting attorney and the auditor retired after long terms in office but only one candidate filed for each of these positions.
For better understanding
San Juan County does have local newspapers, but Quast points out they are “less robust than they used to be, and don’t always have the resources or personnel to cover everything.”
The observer corps notes being published are synopses of actions and topics and are not meant as official meeting minutes, which are usually available on-line. The notes are intended to help local citizens have a better understanding of the issues being discussed by elected officials. (An example of a report on a recent meeting of the San Juan County Council is found at the end of this article.)
Quast observed that often different government agencies are discussing the same topic and she’s wished that the different agencies would spend more time communicating with each other.
“The meetings [are] surprisingly interesting,” she said, admitting she is somewhat of a policy wonk. “I’ve been very impressed with the level of hard work and the commitment of people doing their jobs,” she said. “It’s made me feel better about government.”
Just notes, not opinions
A note accompanying each observer corps report notes that the project aim is “to expand public understanding of public policy and decisions. The notes do not necessarily reflect the views of the League or its members.”
A recent LWVSJ observer corps report covered the San Juan County Council Dec. 13 meeting:
“During Public Access, Lovel Pratt of Friends of the San Juans asked the council to again include getting oil spill equipment and personnel located in the county and to support whale deterrence during an oil spill.
“In their discussion of legislative priorities at the federal and state level, the council included affordable housing, health and mental health, school funding, growler noise abatement, coastal erosion, oil spill issues and ferries.
“The council approved the recommendations for the 2023 lodging tax awards by 2-1 with council member Wolf opposing due to the balance of distributions among islands.
“The auditor’s office reported on grant administration. The council was asked to ensure that grant requests include indirect costs in the budget before approving them for submission, The auditor’s office will be submitting a new procurement policy to meet federal standards for procurements using grant funding.
“The council authorized the county manager to sign a memorandum of understanding to create an opioid abatement council to monitor funds received from opioid settlements.
“There was a ceremony to recognize county employees who had reached milestone anniversaries working for the county.”
—Reported by Nancy DeVaux
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