First came Washington County Watchdog, a Facebook page devoted to a critical review of local government budgets. Now there’s Washington County Watchdog Debunked, created to bite back.
Matt Behning started the original Watchdog page — the first of its kind in Washington County — in February 2013 to inspect spending decisions.
“All too often all we hear about how our tax dollars are being spent is the one-sided opinion of our elected leaders who authored it and the people who benefit from it,” Behning said recently. “Who’s the voice of the people who are paying for it?”
Behning became that voice, putting Watchdog on the trail of county government decisions on transit, taxes, public buildings and other budget matters. Along the way, he accumulated nearly 800 followers on his page.
As Watchdog expanded its surveillance to city governments in Washington County — and became more outspoken on matters of county finance — it drew howls from critics. They said Watchdog was frequently wrong in its interpretations of spending, took a simplistic view of government services, and had begun making slanderous personal attacks.
Gary Kriesel, a county commissioner, began commenting on Debunked when he thought the Watchdog’s bark had taken a threatening tone toward county employees. He said he wanted to correct persistent factual errors and lack of context on Behning’s page.
“Where he’s crossed the line with me is attacking county staff,” Kriesel said. “He’s accusing them of intentionally lying. It’s all bogus and unfounded. He can say anything he wants but lay off the staff. If he wants to attack me or any other elected official, that’s fair enough.”
Two business owners who use assumed names started Debunked on Nov. 30 after they were banned from Watchdog. They haven’t publicly identified themselves to guard against personal attacks, they have said.
Behning said Debunked isn’t credible because of “faceless” posts. “If they work for the County and are fleecing tax dollars they have everything to maintain,” he said.
Kriesel said the Debunked founders aren’t county employees or elected officials but “given the Watchdog’s track record,” they want to remain anonymous.
Of Behning, Kriesel said: “He’s always trying to portray an issue as a conspiracy or something evil. Comments that challenge him all of a sudden get deleted. It’s a wilderness of mirrors.”
In response, Behning denied deleting posts from Watchdog that criticize the accuracy of his statements.
“We take accuracy very seriously and that’s why we’ve attempted to maintain an open forum for all to post on,” he said.
However, he said that moderators of Debunked — which so far has about 70 followers — have assailed the Watchdog page repeatedly without posting evidence to support their arguments.
“Imagine five people relentlessly firing literally lists of what they thought was false about our posts daily,” Behning said. “Eleven days they continued with their shotgun-style debate to overwhelm us, during which time I attempted to kindly ask them to post evidence. They refused and on Dec. 11, I had to put a few of these people on a short three-day break to cool off.”
Behning named two co-moderators, Eric Langness and Andrea Mayer-Bruestle, who he said help run the page. “Just because we want to learn what’s being done with our valuable resources,” Behning said, doesn’t mean they oppose government spending.
“I have no interest in publicity, gaining ‘likes,’ taking money, or doing anything but post the complete story on local news that affects my fellow taxpayers and listening to everyone’s feedback,” he said.
Many of Watchdog’s criticisms have been aimed at the county’s transportation division, where engineers and planners have been working on the Gateway, Red Rock and Rush Line transit plans. Behning particularly has chased after Gateway Corridor project manager Andy Gitzlaff, claiming he has dispensed outdated and misleading information to promote what Behning sees as a controversial project.
Kriesel defended Gitzlaff, saying county employees are following guidelines put forth by elected commissioners.
“I don’t want to discourage people from being critical of government, or asking questions or challenging. That is not my intent here,” Kriesel said. “I’m interested in engaging anybody who has questions and concerns. The last thing I want to do is send a message that if somebody does respond to me there’s going to be retaliation. That’s not what this is about. This is about hands off staff.”
George Kuprian, the civil division chief in the County Attorney’s office, said county employees aren’t necessarily public figures in the legal sense — a standard that supposedly discourages libel suits.
“It really depends on the facts of the situation. Even public figures can be libeled,” Kuprian said, mentioning the recent $1.8 million judgment in favor of former Navy Seal and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura as an example of that.
A few weeks ago, Behning described Debunked as “a spurious page devoted to ‘debunking’ us with unending and inflammatory accusations that conveniently leave us guilty until proven innocent.” He said his detractors would “use their real names and faces” if they cared about the truth.
“Everybody likes a watchdog,” Kriesel said. “I have a watchdog at home but you don’t have to bark at every car that goes by.”