A lot of what we do at Raleigh Public Record is just showing up for small meetings at City Hall. Planning Commission, City Council committees — we often have the only reporter in the room, providing that watchdog eye that has been missing from city government.
The importance of just showing up is something we know and preach to our reporters and our readers. Wednesday morning was one of those times when it really paid off. (Actually, it always pays off, regularly leading to great stories you can’t find anywhere else.) But Wednesday was a little different. Our intrepid City Hall Bureau Chief Ariella Monti had sat through seven hours of meetings the day before, so I volunteered to go sit on the Council chambers for the results of a closed session they’d left active overnight.
I was the only reporter in the room; I was the only person present who was not a city staffer or Council member. When the meeting re-opened, the first words out of the mayor’s mouth were something along the lines of, “We have decided not to renew City Manager Russell Allen’s contract.”
My mouth dropped. I was dumbfounded for a second and then started furiously taking notes. This was big. I know there was a bomb in Boston two days before and a letter with ricin sent to Obama that day, but this was big for us. We are dedicated to covering Raleigh and only Raleigh, and this was the guy who had run the city — many would argue quite successfully — for more than a decade. Allen presided over the re-opening of Fayetteville Street, pushed the downtown revitalization, brought the city through the Great Recession, and now he was done.
I will not take a position on the Council’s decision to get rid of Allen. I’m sure they had their reasons. I know there have been tensions about the failed downtown public safety center and other issues big and small. We’d heard rumors that some Councilors were not happy with his performance. But it caught me off guard, and I’m supposed to be following this stuff as close as anyone.
I got the story out on Twitter and called our managing editor. I ran downstairs and outside while asking if she could type something out for me.
“Okay, here’s your headline, ‘Allen Out as City Manager,’” I told her. I won’t repeat what she said here, but there may have been a four-letter word. She was surprised, too.
We worked out a quick first draft of the story and got it online just as the press release was going out to the rest of the local news organizations. I went by Allen’s office, but he wasn’t giving interviews. I spent the next hour wondering around City Hall, bugging people, collecting more information and working with the managing editor to add updates to the story, with text messages and calls going back and forth.
A TV news truck or two came by for five minutes and then moved on to the next thing. We got the story complete by noon, updating the original post.
I share this anecdote with you to tell you that this is why we do what we do. We put ourselves through the boredom that is Planning Commission or the Law and Public Safety Committee to keep an eye on city government for you. Success in this business is all about showing up, being there when it happens. Our mission to provide independent public service journalism to Raleigh is based on the same idea. How can you be a watchdog and keep an eye on city government if you don’t show up?