Just as election season was about to rev up, with candidates filing this week to appear on the August and November ballots, one of Whatcom County’s most vigilant political watchdogs decided to shut down his blog.
Riley Sweeney’s last post on The Political Junkie was the announcement of his decision, on Saturday, May 9. He accepted the communications officer position with the city of Ferndale, replacing part of the responsibilities of Sam Taylor. Taylor, who ultimately took the title of assistant city administrator, leaves Ferndale after four years to take a similar city post in California.
Taylor set the precedent for politics bloggers working on some of the nuts-and-bolts stuff at Ferndale City Hall. Taylor founded this blog before he left to take the Ferndale city clerk job in early 2011.
Sweeney will focus on the communications end of Taylor’s work, managing the city’s social media and news releases.
Sweeney’s left-leaning, lighthearted corner of the blogosphere going dark will affect everyone in the Whatcom County political community. Touchingly, Sweeney received well wishes under his final post from people across the political spectrum.
“Kris Halterman surprised me, because I have not been kind to her,” Sweeney said, adding that he usually tarred her with the “pro-coal activist” brush every time he mentioned her name. (Halterman runs a conservative talk show Saturdays on KGMI, and was president of a political action committee funded by coal interests that supported conservative Whatcom candidates.)
Halterman had written: “Good luck Riley! You know more than others the tough road you will hoe to touch the consciousness of the people in Ferndale. Although we differ on how to get there … we both understand the value that people make to a community.”
“I was really really touched,” Sweeney said, about the responses in general. “It’s really overwhelming. All the kind things that people have said, people that I have had knock-down, drag-out fights with.”
Before seeing the announcement, I had wondered if the chips might fall a much different way in this important week on the elections calendar. Sweeney mentioned two years ago on his blog he had an interest in running for Bellingham City Council. He decided after all to sit that election cycle out, but I always assumed that someday, whether this year or some year very soon, I would see Sweeney’s name on the ballot.
“This’ll probably replace that in the ambitions category,” Sweeney said. “I’m hanging up my political advocate and activist hat, and trading it in for transparency and city work.”
City leaders want Sweeney to continue the work Taylor did to make Ferndale’s business more accessible to the public. Taylor rebuilt Ferndale’s website, gave the city a lively Facebook presence and was quick to school council members in meetings about how decisions needed to be made in the open, and free of conflicts of interest.
Sweeney’s job also will be to keep the lines of communications open between government and its citizens.
Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen wrote this under Sweeney’s blog: “I would say that Ferndale completely understands the talent we will be receiving. Sam will be very tough to replace but Riley will continue our quest to find new ways to improve our communications with our citizens.”
Sweeney’s first day of duty in Ferndale is May 22. His salary will be $50,000 a year, according to city officials.
On a personal note, I read Sweeney’s blog since before I started at the Herald in December 2011 (replacing not Taylor but another reporter). The first post of his I read was his on-the-scene, undercover coverage of the April 2011 Tax Day tea party rally on Meridian Street. (Sweeney, in his best form, carried a sign that read “Bachmann / Cthulhu 2012.”)
It was reporting like the following line from his rally coverage — opinionated, sure, but insightful and funny — that has had me reading ever since:
“Rep. Vincent Buys was there, on break from his work as a legislator. I talked to him briefly, he said that he was happy that Kelli Linville is running for Mayor of Bellingham and thinks she will do a great job. We can file that under unwelcome endorsements but interesting all the same.”
I won’t miss Sweeney scooping the Herald on breaking political news, but I will miss his work greatly. Sweeney said he would have big shoes to fill in Ferndale, replacing Taylor. My concern is, the winner of the 2014 Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism Award simply can’t be replaced.