A long battle over the fate of the defunct Bellingham Weekly may be coming to a close as an arbitration judge delivered an interim ruling early this month.
The arbitration suit is the remnant of a battle for control of the newspaper between publisher Doug Tolchin and editor Tim Johnson. Johnson filed the arbitration with the American Arbitration Association against Tolchin for a number of claims centered on Johnson’s termination in December 2005. Essentially, Johnson argued his termination was groundless, while Tolchin found cause.
Where it gets complicated is that Johnson was not only an employee of the newspaper’s publishing company Atomic Telegraph, LLC, but was also an owner. Tolchin and Johnson orginally each owned 50 percent of the company. But in a written agreement, Tolchin became majority owner of Atomic Telegraph in exchange for further investment. Johnson retained a 30 percent ownership in the deal.
The judge denied all but one claim, granting Johnson his claim to $57,000 in wages owed by Atomic Telegraph. However, the judge relieved Tolchin from personal financial responsibility for those wages.
Tolchin said he did not dispute the amount of those wages, which he said had been deferred on a verbal agreement in an effort to keep Atomic Telegraph financially solvent. Tolchin said he invested 10 times the amount he originally agreed on and also worked many hours on the publication without pay.
Tolchin fired Johnson as editor in December 2005, and the Bellingham Weekly published once more after — a “hibernation” issue in which Tolchin explained and defended his decision to stop publication. In March 2006, Johnson became editor and publisher of the Cascadia Weekly, a publication with the look and feel of the demised Bellingham Weekly and funded by local developers David Syre and Bob Hall. But Johnson’s employment contract with Atomic Telegraph included a non-competition clause for a period of one year should he be fired.
Johnson said the arbitration judge rejected the non-competition claim for several reasons, primarily because such clauses restrain commerce. Another is that the Bellingham Weekly only published once since 2005, leaving Johnson to question exactly what he is competing against.
Hall and Syre’s ownership of the Cascadia Weekly has also come under scrutiny outside the arbitration suit, resulting in some bumps on the road for the fledgling publication. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies denied the Cascadia Weekly membership in June because of what they judged as favorable coverage to controversy surrounding Trillium Corporation, which Syre owns.
But Johnson brushed off the rejection and plans to apply again next year.
“The association likes to beat you up a little bit before they let you in,” he said. “Generally they had favorable comments about the publication.”
While the Cascadia Weekly fills the void left by its predecessor, the bitterness remains as both sides wait for a final decision to come down sometime in the next month. Both sides have made additional claims for consideration on specific aspects of the case.