A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Forced into the hero role

By Quill

It started with a dispute over a hot dog. Specifically, Robbie, a Bullhead City, Ariz., police dog. He was rushed to the vet after nearly dying from heat exhaustion. The K-9 recovered, but a city councilwoman turned up the heat by accusing the northwestern Arizona police department of mistreating Robbie. Then a police officer cited the same councilwoman for driving on a suspended license, and the fight was on. Charges piled on counter-charges. Credit-card fraud. Sexual harassment. Rumors of free hotel rooms in Las Vegas and discounts at dry-cleaners for city officials. The city council commissioned an outside investigation of all the complaints. The findings were contained in a 2,000-page report, which was immediately requested by two local newspapers and the city’s police chief. The city contended that – despite public records laws to the contrary – the report should remain confidential because the people interviewed during the investigation were promised confidentiality. Before any of the three requesters could question the city’s decision in court, the council launched a pre-emptive strike by filing a suit of its own, asking a judge to declare the documents confidential. The city sued only one of the requesters: The Mohave Valley News. Darryle Purcell, managing editor of the 10,000 circulation News, said the irony was that his paper probably wouldn’t have challenged the city’s decision because, as he accurately predicted, the report “will turn out to be a gaggle of worthless accusations.” But in the face of what amounted to a public records SLAPP suit, the paper committed itself to the fight, in court and editorially. Purcell launched his own fusillade of editorials and cartoons. One editorial blasted the tactic of “clamp(ing) down on us nosy citizens.” The city, he wrote, is run “by the people, for the people, in spite of the people.” Purcell drew an editorial cartoon, which included a depiction of Robbie, the K-9, and likened the council to the KKK, calling it a “Secret Council Society.” Last September, Mohave County Superior Court Judge James Chavez rejected the city’s arguments, concluded the city “acted in bad faith,” and ordered the documents released. He also ordered the city to pay the newspaper’s legal fees, totaling nearly $12,000. Combined with the city’s costs for hiring outside counsel, the lawsuit ended up costing nearly $1 for every citizen of Bullhead City. The next election brought four new council members (of seven), in part because of the lawsuit. Rich Robertson

SPJ Arizona Sunshine Chair