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We’ve lost two champions of open government

We’ve lost two great champions of open government and although neither was from the East County area, both had wide impacts felt all over the county.

John Erak, a former legislator, educator and Aberdeen City Councilman, died on June 28. And Ron Armstrong was taken from us on June 21 and has been described as a local political watchdog — although a friend more accurately described him as a political “bulldog” during a eulogy at his funeral.

Both often put community service first and weren’t afraid to speak their minds. We can all learn from both of these fine men that if we don’t pay attention to what our government is doing, abuses can happen.

They taught us it’s our responsibility to attend council meetings, to know our lawmakers and make our opinions known on critical issues. Dozens of times I’ve witnessed Armstrong in particular be the only citizen voice in a room full of media and lawmakers.

In February, when I took over as editor of The Vidette, one of the first phone calls I got was from Armstrong. He said he had ideas for ways I could be successful. He said I had to have a voice — that a newspaper needed to do editorials.

Voicing an opinion was always a stretch for me since I’ve strived to remain neutral and unbiased as a reporter for my entire 15-year career. But using Ron’s ideas, I launched a column dedicated to transparency, accountability, education on public records and the Open Public Meetings Act. These are all ideals that Ron worked his whole life to support. And, often, he would spend his own money to support his values — both in donations for candidates and even to buy CDs for the county to record its meetings and distribute those recordings to the public for free.

In 2010, he even sued the county to ensure he could have access to public records. My newspaper sued the county, too. The difference was we hired a pretty high-priced attorney. Ron represented himself. The reports we sought were critical of the county’s Planning Department. And the planning director didn’t want us to have them.

We won. And Judge David Edwards made a special note to say that Ron’s presentation was impressive. He had clear legal knowledge on public records and public access. And it showed.

Armstrong then turned around and discovered that many of the documents’ contents were plagiarized from previously created reports and ended up saving the county thousands of dollars when the report’s authors admitted what they had done.

He used this as an example the reports should have been turned over months earlier and he would have saved the county even more.

I have no doubt he would have.

About five years ago, John Erak came to me and said — “Kiddo, I think I’m going to try my hand at this City Council thing. I’m going to put my name in for the appointment.”

“Really?” I asked him. “Why’s that?”

“Because I still have a few good years in me, I think I can do this city some good.”

Erak had been attending council meetings. He was one of these people that would take to public comment periods to ask questions, but he was always frustrated that he wasn’t getting the answers he wanted. He figured by being on the inside he could be an architect for change.

A couple weeks later, he was appointed to the Aberdeen City Council and ran unopposed for the seat.

Erak and I became close. As the reporter covering the city of Aberdeen for The Daily World, he would call me almost every week. And as editor of The Vidette, he would still call me.

“What would happen, you think, if I said …” he would start by asking me and we would talk about public art projects and issues with City Hall.

Erak knew that sometimes he would just talk and ask questions and everyone in the room’s eyes would glaze over. But, many times, he was one of the very few council members asking questions.

And even when his health was waning, he kept coming to council meetings. And on more than one occasion he asked critical questions — on downtown issues, on crude by rail, on the coal train proposals, even on whether the city should ban fireworks, which was one of his most passionate subjects.

I always thought it was funny that a guy who didn’t care for fireworks was a source of debate that caused its own fireworks.

Erak said he hoped he had a few good years in him. And, it turns out he had five good years left in him.

Armstrong’s funeral drew dozens of people last week in Hoquiam. Erak’s funeral is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at the First Presbyterian Church, 420 N. Broadway, in Aberdeen. A reception will follow at the Aberdeen Museum. Private interment will be at Fern Hill Cemetery.

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at editor@thevidette.com