WIP editors began working on this issue of the paper with the idea that we would look back at our stories over the past few years to see where there are “loose ends.” What stories did WIP publish about government actions or environmental threats or citizen efforts to improve things—where there needed to be on-going coverage?
The reality is that there is no one covering the important matters that affect the lives of people in Thurston County. The Olympian is a shadow of a paper that even in its best days was not worthy of a Capital City and county.
Studies show that as newspapers stop covering City Hall and other local institutions, residents become less informed about the issues that affect them, and less engaged with local government. They will have no real idea of where their taxes are going, nor what policies are driving the shape of their communities.
Local government information is not designed to reveal who is making decisions, and whether decisions match policies or benefit all residents. Instead, the information that governments provide on their websites and via public communication focus on all the wonderful things that the government is doing…
In the absence of a robust daily paper, no one is being paid to ferret out what is going on and to synthesize their findings in a way that gives people solid, ongoing information about what their local governments—and the businesses that dominate them—are up to.
Works in Progress even with only volunteers published a number of stories where there are “loose ends.” Here are just a few that illustrate how vital it would be to have a real newspaper in Thurston County:
Housing policy and homelessness. The cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater have collectively issued dozens of plans outlining the crisis in affordable housing—homelessness, rising rents, historical discrimination, and barriers to ownership.
WIP reported on three proposals to the Olympia City Council that offered means to address the problem of high rents; in contrast to automatic awards of tax exemptions. If there had been a local paper covering City Hall these would have remained in the news and action could have followed.
In November 2019, tenants asked the Olympia City Council to adopt an ordinance to remove a barrier that makes renting impossible for some, by allowing “move-in” fees to be paid in increments. It’s two years later and nothing was ever heard again about this. Did the Council just forget it?
In March of 2020, registering rental properties emerged as a key need from a forum that involved tenants and landlords. That same “Housing Action Plan” states that a registry is envisioned—but when? And is anyone working on it?
A series of articles in 2020 brought to light the fact that the city of Olympia was awarding property tax exemptions to boost profitability for developers of downtown market-rate apartment buildings. The practice of awarding tax dollars to developers over funding to increase housing affordable to those making workers’ salary was not scrutinized beyond WIPs stories.
In January 2021, advocates went to the City Council with a proposed “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Ordinance.” A TOPO allows renters the right of first refusal when a property is being sold by its owners. At the time, City officials said they would make TOPO a focus in their new Housing Action Plan. That Plan was final in June of last year. Is TOPO a priority? Are more renters in jeopardy of losing their homes?
Local democracy. Thurston County, its municipal governments and the Port routinely delegate their authority to unelected officials and allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax money to non-governmental organizations. Works in Progress has shed some light on how these actions diminish democratic government, but they just become loose ends when they’re not followed up in an ongoing way that reveals their long-term effect.
In August and October 2021, articles about the role of the Olympia Hearing Examiner revealed shortcomings in the City Council’s oversight of this powerful official. The Hearing Examiner position was opened up this spring, and the same individual was rehired. Nothing about alternative candidates, the issues, the prospects for better oversight ever made it to the public.
An article in October 2019 followed the Port Olympia acquisition of a business center in Lacey—based on staff’s glowing projections of healthy returns in a robust rental market—only to be apprised too late that all of those projections were wrong. What’s happened to that purchase? Did the Port simply indebt itself further? No one knows; no one is accountable; there is no transparency.
“Economic development” is a broad label that supports local government spending of millions of dollars of public money in ways that only a select portion of the community is privy to. The Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Council, certain favored developers—these appear from time to time in WIP articles. Neither the Chamber nor the EDC have to respond to public record requests , but it needs a real newspaper with paid professional reporters for citizens to know how these bodies influence our lives and the future they are creating for us.