SOUTH BEND, Wash. — Last week, the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office made a dramatic and unusual announcement.
In a lengthy statement posted to Facebook, the sheriff’s office announced they would no longer work with the local newspaper, the Chinook Observer.
“We understand that the media plays a crucial role in disseminating information to the public, and we value the opportunity to communicate with local news outlets,” the post read. “However, the inability to find common ground and maintain a professional rapport with the Chinook Observer has regrettably led us to this point.”
Sheriff Daniel Garcia told KMUN his office has issues with freelance reporter Jeff Clemens, who has covered law enforcement, public safety and county issues for the Chinook Observer for several years. Garcia contends that Clemens’ reporting has been inaccurate and veers into opinion rather than news.
The sheriff said they have tried for months to work with the Long Beach newspaper, but felt they were getting nowhere.
Matt Winters, the newspaper’s longtime editor and publisher, said the sheriff’s office’s decision to no longer communicate with Chinook Observer staff isn’t new. He said the sheriff and other members of his administrative team hadn’t been responding to requests for comment for a while — when email inquiries were answered this was done through a designated public information officer. Now, Winters said, the agency’s position is just official.
Winters shot back at the Facebook post with an editorial that appeared online the next day and was featured on the front page of the weekly newspaper.
“We stand by all our coverage, particularly of the sheriff’s office,” he wrote. “It has well-documented problems. Some predate Sheriff Daniel Garcia, while others are under his watch.”
He said the sheriff’s office has never contacted the newspaper seeking a correction.
“Blaming the messenger,” Winters concluded, “is the tiredest political ploy in the world.”
Readers — of the newspaper and the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page — shared a range of opinions. Some supported Garcia’s decision. Some championed the newspaper. Others fell more in the middle, expressing concern with how both sides conveyed information. Many wondered what it meant going forward.
Law enforcement and news outlets often rely on each other and maintain professional — if not always warm — working relationships where information is regularly shared and the sheriff knows to expect calls or emails from reporters looking for comment following major and minor events.
Often, a reporter might speak off the record or on background with a sheriff. These conversations require trust, but they are an opportunity for both sides to be open with the other about potentially sensitive topics or situations and for law enforcement to provide important information or context that might inform a reporter’s work.
These types of conversations and this type of relationship have not been established between Clemens and the current administration at the sheriff’s office. Each side blames the other.
County Administrator Paul Plakinger has worked with a number of Chinook Observer reporters over the years and said that, for the most part, he has felt good about the stories they wrote.
“It is certainly true that minor mistakes in reporting have occurred — usually an incomplete quote or a piece of information provided without broader context — but I certainly understand that mistakes will occur from time to time,” he said.
In his own opinion, though, it is worrisome that Garcia and his staff are not speaking with the Chinook Observer.
“I disagree with the sheriff’s decision to cut off communications with the official county newspaper,” he told KMUN. “A free press is one of the pillars of a healthy democracy.”
Plakinger reports to the Board of County Commissioners, but they do not have oversight of the elected sheriff outside of establishing budgetary spending limits. Still, Plakinger said he hopes to have a conversation with Garcia before the end of the week and express his concerns.
Garcia was elected in 2022, a write-in candidate without law enforcement experience, who defeated incumbent Sheriff Robin Souvenir.
Until Garcia jumped into the race, Souvenir was running unopposed and likely to be re-elected — a situation that concerned some residents of the county who were upset with his leadership.
Since the November election, the Chinook Observer has reported on requests Garcia made to purchase new rifles before taking office and, after he took office, back-and-forth moments he has had with other county leaders. These include emails between Garcia and county administrators where Garcia referred to himself as the “CEO of Pacific County.”
Clemens has filed stories about the investigation into a jail inmate’s death, about allegations of deputy misconduct and other charges and concerns, and Garcia’s attendance at a meeting hosted by a local chapter of the John Birch Society, a right-wing political advocacy group. He has also reported on drug busts, car crashes and arrests, among other stories.
Garcia believes that many of the articles Clemens has written seemed “dramatized and opinionated.” He said his issue isn’t as much with what is reported as it is with how.
“You know, (Garcia) could have called the reporter or I on any of these issues and said, ‘Well, yeah, you know, that’s what the story looks like, but here is my take on it,’” Winters said. “He has never once done that.”
Garcia and his staff met once with Winters. Garcia said he came away hoping they could forge a good relationship with the newspaper. But he said further interactions with Clemens did not go well and that he was told conflicting things about how the paper makes corrections and opportunities to speak on background or off the record.
Garcia believes one problem is that he and other staff could not respond quickly enough to the Chinook Observer’s requests for comment — different from an official records request under state law, which comes with requirements for response.
“So they would run whatever without my response and claim that we didn’t respond,” he said. “It’s contributed to the contentious relationship.”
Under the microscope
Pacific County is large, with wide spaces between communities. Winters has seen a number of sheriffs come and go and acknowledges the geography of the county can make it a challenge for anyone coming into the position. Deputies’ response times to incidents are a frequent but often unavoidable concern, especially when the sheriff’s office is understaffed.
For someone like Garcia, who lacks not only law enforcement experience but also county government experience, Winters attributes some things he did and said early in his tenure to “beginner’s mistakes.”
He said he understands Garcia and the rest of the sheriff’s office might feel under the microscope.
“But they’ve put themselves there,” he said. “We don’t make up stories. We have plenty of things to keep ourselves busy.”
“Jeff is a tough reporter,” Winters added. “It’s hard to find people that are unafraid of hurting people’s feelings, of hurting a public official’s feelings.”
The Facebook announcement will not change the newspaper’s coverage.
“It’s not like we’re going to stop,” Winters said. “We’ll ask them every single time when a serious story comes up — or a not serious story comes up — if they have something to say about it.”
Winters believes the sheriff’s office is mostly alone in its criticisms of Clemens’ work. Plakinger told KMUN he appreciated Clemens’ efforts to be accurate and fair when reporting on county matters.
But some readers questioned the relevance of the first story the newspaper chose to publish following the sheriff’s office announcement last week.
The headline read, “Expensive wrap removed from deputy’s SUV after one year,” and the story was about how vinyl wraps, which once marked a 2021 Dodge Durango used by the sheriff’s office as a patrol vehicle, were removed.
In the story, Clemens noted that vehicle wraps usually last five years and he detailed the records requests the newspaper submitted to determine the cost of the work. Clemens also emailed the sheriff’s office seeking comment on the wrap removal.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to Clemens but later posted an explanation to their Facebook page, saying the patrol car had scratches all along its body and the wrap was torn and peeling.
One commenter on the sheriff’s office’s post wrote, “We’ll never know the actual truth or get any transparency, but this Facebook feud between your organization and the newspaper is entertaining (on) a slow summer day.”
KMUN asked Winters about the story and the criticism voiced by some readers who wondered why the newspaper was spending time reporting on an SUV wrap. Winters noted that Sgt. Kyle Pettit is the deputy who operates the vehicle. He had been under scrutiny for an incident in 2011 and later received a promotion when Garcia took office.
“When it involves him, it becomes a story that’s worth noting,” Winters said. “Whereas if it were another deputy, not having that sort of history, it might not have generated a story.”
Garcia said the sheriff’s office will still comply with Washington state law when it comes to filling requests for public records. He also said he has good relationships with other media outlets in the region and plans to ramp up communication with The Daily World in Aberdeen, which covers Grays Harbor County and northern Pacific County.
“It’s not like they’re the only news outlet around,” Garcia said of the Chinook Observer. “There’s many of them, and the Chinook Observer is still going to print whatever they’re going to print.”
If the newspaper wants to reestablish a relationship, the sheriff said he’s open to the possibility.