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Lakewood resident Dan Smith wants the Lakewood Watchdog newspaper to be looked at as traditional media outlet. The Watchdog, published quarterly, often refers to Lakewood’s government as “the establishment,” and it claims to give its readers “the whole story.”
The Watchdog’s pages are colorful, and the front of each issue reads that it’s published “to keep the people informed of the happenings of their local government that are ignored by a compliant news media.” It chimes in on local government issues, and its recent Oct. 1 issue was critical of, as of print, Lakewood City Councilmember Dana Gutwein, who was up for reelection, Lakewood City Council candidate Kyra deGruy and Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul — someone the Watchdog has targeted in previous issues.
The Watchdog isn’t necessarily untruthful, but it is clearly opinionated.
Election season may be done, but some in Lakewood politics are still pointing their fingers at the Watchdog. Lakewood resident Tom Keefe filed a complaint against the Watchdog to the city of Lakewood on Oct. 23, saying it violated Lakewood Municipal Code — particularly in regards to campaign and political finance code around Lakewood’s elections.
Here’s a look at the Watchdog and what Keefe’s complaint looks like.
What is the Watchdog?
The Watchdog was born in 2014 after Dan Smith ran an unsuccessful campaign for a City Council seat. He lost the 2013 election to Shakti in a 53.1% to a 46.9% vote. Smith says he lost the election because former Lakewood Mayor Bob Murphy made sure Shakti’s campaign was “well funded.”
“I told (Murphy) at that point in time that he was going to be wishing I won the election, because he hadn’t heard the last of me. If I had won the election, I wouldn’t have been able to start the Watchdog, so I’m grateful that he made sure enough money was spent to beat me,” said Smith, who serves as the president for the Watchdog. He says the president’s role of the Watchdog is to do some editing, research and to make sure it’s in compliance with government regulations. Sue Cook serves as the Watchdog’s editor and John Smith serves as its researcher.
The Watchdog doesn’t quote any sources like a traditional newspaper, nor does it have any bylines next to its articles.
Smith says the Watchdog is distributed to as many registered voters as it can be sent out to, and if he had the budget, he would send it out to every doorstep in Lakewood. The Watchdog is funded by “concerned citizens,” Smith says, but he refused to give out the names of any of its funders, or how much it costs to produce.
“Our mission is open government in Lakewood and transparency in government. Generally, the powers that be use Looking@Lakewood and the Lakewood Sentinel to get their message out,” said Smith. Looking@Lakewood is a printed newsletter mailed to all residential and business addresses in Lakewood to provide residents with information about Lakewood’s government. “We counter balance that.”
Asked for specifics, Smith said the Lakewood Sentinel didn’t provide fair coverage regarding Lakewood’s recent residential growth cap vote. In July, Lakewood voters approved a ballot measure that limits new home construction to 1% in a special election.
“(The Lakewood Sentinel) tends to spin for the city establishment, and not take into consideration what the people in the neighborhoods are saying,” said Smith.
The Lakewood Sentinel released more than a dozen stories regarding the growth cap initiative, which often included quotes from citizens in support of the initiative.
Election coverage or campaigning?
The Watchdog’s critical eye definitely focuses on some candidates more than others. The Oct. 1 Watchdog edition, alleges that deGruy violated campaign finance reporting requirements in 2017 by giving Gutwein a $2,000 expenditure for consulting services. That allegation was dismissed at that time by former Lakewood City Clerk Margy Greer, who called the allegation “frivolous.” The Watchdog takes other shots at Gutwein and deGruy saying the two tap into “the same liberal money sources.”
The Watchdog alluded to Paul as being a “career politician” in comparison to his mayoral opponent, Ramey Johnson. Paul was elected to City Council in 2007 and served as mayor pro-tem and council president until 2015 when he became mayor. Before then, he served six years on the Green Mountain Water and Sanitation District Board. Johnson has been on Lakewood City Council since 2011. She served in the state legislature as the representative of House District 23 from 2003-2004. She lost a reelection bid in 2006 to Gwyn Green.
“We just want to expose what’s going on. We’ve never said vote one way or another,” said Smith.
Smith has been no stranger to being called out publicly. Lakewood resident Steven Buckley filed a campaign finance complaint in June against the Watchdog, saying it violated city code in regards to its coverage of Lakewood’s growth cap ahead of the special election. The complaint was dismissed.
Smith was also publicly called a racist by Lakewood resident Sandie Weathers at a Sept. 9 Lakewood City Council meeting. He had previously shared a photo on Facebook of a truck with blood on the front of it with the caption “Just drove through Ferguson, don’t see any problems.” In 2014, protests took place in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting and death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American man, who was killed by a police officer. Protestors, many of whom were African American, took to the streets in protest.
“They’re out there calling us racists. There’s no race involved,” said Smith. “I have neighbors from all over the world, and we get along. Most of them support me. We all want the same things, and it doesn’t matter where we’re from.”
Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Shaun Schafer, who was a working journalist for 20 years and has taught journalism at the university level since 2004, said the Watchdog reminds him of a person deciding to print a blog.
“It’s interesting. The author clearly has a viewpoint that is based as much on personal interests as observable facts,” said Schafer.
“This is why we say it is important to have quotes from sources. It allows people to determine the value of what is being reported. A long list of items without reference to sources is just the same as keeping a diary,” he added. “In the marketplace of ideas, people are always going to seek out information. In this case, they may choose to go with an information source that they can agree with and that validates their existing biases.
When asked whether he would consider the Watchdog a credible news source, Schafer said time will tell with any news source.
“If we find that the reporting is accurate, over time, we give it credibility. If we don’t find that happening, then it’s not a valid source.”
Keefe’s complaint against the Watchdog is long and detailed. He alleges that the Oct. 1 edition of the Watchdog unfairly compares deGruy to her opponent, current Lakewood City Councilmember Charley Able. He also says Gutwein is unfairly compared to her opponent, Chad Gardner.
The Watchdog discusses Able’s work to bring back Lakewood’s Fourth of July fireworks celebration and his career as a reporter for the former Rocky Mountain News. But in comparing Able’s ballot box opponent, it only names deGruy when talking about funds she raised in a previous 2017 election campaign.
Smith has publicly supported Able on his Facebook page.
In a section comparing Gutwein and Gardner, the Watchdog calls Gutwein Paul’s “favorite councilor.” Gardner is only talked about presenting himself as a voice of change in the section. It goes on to talk about contributions Gutwein allegedly received.
“The Lakewood Watchdog is an electioneering communication. It is delivered to voters only during elections with support or opposition of candidates and issues with the intent of influencing an election,” said Gutwein. “Yet, the Watchdog has never reported one cent of their contributions for the thousands of dollars they have spent on our local politics, leaving voters with no ability to find out who is paying for it, and what their motives may be.”
To be considered an electioneering communication, the message, which can come in print or online form, must name a candidate, and be sent out to the voting public, according to Lakewood Municipal Code. It also must be distributed within 60 days before a municipal election, which the Oct. 1 edition of the Watchdog definitely was.
News stories or editorials are specifically excluded from most definitions of electioneering communication.
If an electioneering communication spends $500 or more, then it must include how it was paid for, the city’s municipal code reads. Keefe’s complaint alleges that the Watchdog failed to comply with that section of the Lakewood Municipal Code.
“The very thing that (the Watchdog is) criticizing people on the council and candidates of are things they are in fact doing. Things like dark money and like accusing others of election hearing fraud,” said Keefe. “I think one of the things I’m hoping for is better attention to the enforcement policy in the existing (Lakewood Municipal Code).”
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