Since the Newport News-Times broached the subject of Newport City Hall relations with the news media, some observations from our perspective seems in order.
Yes it’s true that there was a contentious discussion at a recent city council workshop over what appeared to us to be an effort by Mayor McConnell, to begin describing a point of view that can be easily described as moving toward a “managed relationship” with the news media. It all stemmed from the way we reported on the firing of now former city Public Works Director Lee Ritzman. Comments critical of our article came largely from Mayor McConnell and City Councilor David Allen who claimed we inappropriately used information we received from several sources, including a city councilor, about Mr. Ritzman’s reluctance to accept “light duty” for four months and then retire, in lieu of being fired outright. City Manager Jim Voetberg fired him right then and there (but effective the next day), and then wrote a rather rosy news release about Ritzman’s laudable service to the community, but followed by a statement that “the department needs new leadership.” In short, good job Lee, but you’re fired.
Ritzman, who most would agree, is one of the nicest people you’ll ever know, none-the-less attracted lightning bolts of criticism for missed grants, delayed constructions, and blamed for cost overruns (whether deserved or not) on the recent Bayfront Project and the town’s now under construction water treatment plant.
Ideas were flying around the city council workshop Monday ranging from “no councilor should say anything until ALL city councilors have read a particular news release” to “sometimes the Mayor might be in the best position to handle things.” Mayor McConnell suggested that the city hire a “media expert” to coach the councilors on when to talk and when to say “no comment.” There were also references made to what is, or is NOT, confidential information associated with news releases.
Off the top, a requirement that each city councilor must be muzzled until there is confirmation that ALL of them have read a particular news release is ludicrous. Do they mean simply read? Have questions answered? Draw conclusions after lengthy and deep thought? Such obstacles to timely comment from our elected leaders could draw out the comment “tirgger” for days. The net effect of such a requirement would be nothing but a veiled attempt to slow down or constrict the flow of information from our INDIVIDUALLY ELECTED city councilors. Our city council is made up of smart, caring, dedicated contributors to our community who are fully capable of commenting on important matters without worrying about who’s reading what and when. No Newport city councilor we know would comment on anything they aren’t comfortable talking about. Most major issues have been lingering for months (if not years) anyway.
Another thing. Legitimate news comes overwhelmingly from stories for which there are NO news releases.
“Maybe the Mayor should handle press releases or speak for the city.” Again, the mayor has only one vote. He (or she) holds the gavel to run city council meetings and helps assemble meeting agendas. But beyond THAT, he or she is JUST ONE VOTE. Each member of the council is individually elected and is expected to contribute his or her OWN UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE on city issues. None are anointed “more equal” than others. With rare, rare exception (such as in the case of fast moving, life or death events) there is little to be gained by the public getting their information that is “managed or funneled” through one person. It would also be an insult to other councilors who would have to stand off in the shadows and suffer in silence regardless of the probability that they would have valuable observations of their own to add to the discussion.
“We should hire a ‘media expert’ to help us know when to comment and when not to.” This is a slippery slope to encourage, if not promote, an ethic of how to “hide in plain sight.” So-called media experts are called in almost exclusively to “manage media access” to information and to direct it in ways that seeks “damage control.” Public servants are supposed to serve the public – not some vision of protecting city hall at all costs, including the image of some mayor’s “administration.” We elect our leaders to do the best job they can at keeping taxes as low as possible while charting a future worthy of our citizenry. It’s not about hiring somebody from the private sector who spends 99% of their time customizing “image management plans” for some company’s collective, or individual ego.
To be fair, there are valuable seminars and websites that clearly outline what aspects of information should be kept confidential. LEGITIMATELY confidential. Such information deals mainly with personnel, legal and labor issues. But even with labor issues, determining who is a public official or public figure can factor significantly as to what is “fair public comment” about such people. It IS, after all, the peoples’ government and we all have a right to know, and duty to know, how our tax money is being spent and how our “public servants” are behaving, on AND off the job, but mostly ON. There is constant debate over what is legitimately confidential information versus what is really just “sensitive information” that somebody in the bureaucracy doesn’t want “out there” in the public. Admittedly it’s a fine line, but it IS there. And it is something that each and every elected official must grapple with. Some instances are easier than others. But always, if they have a question, they should consult the city attorney. Unfortunately for our Newport City Council, they are not allowed to talk to the City Attorney (in Eugene) unless they clear it first with the city manager or the mayor. (If that doesn’t curl your hair, you’re not paying attention.) In Newport’s case, filtered access to legal advice is aimed at saving money. But it also means that the mayor and the city manager always have the upper hand over the entire city council through exclusive access to strategic legal information. It can also keep the rest of the council and even the city attorney herself unaware of problems that inevitably rise up when dealing with employee/management disputes, disputes like those that have erupted in a long list of severance packages that were recently paid only after a number of departing employees agreed not to sue the city over “unnamed potential grievances.” In addition, there are, still pending, a couple of potentially very expensive lawsuits that have been filed against the city by two prominent former employees.
But back on point, we think Mayor McConnell should bring the city attorney over to Newport to DEFINE public information, information which can and should be revealed to ANYONE, including the news media since they are no different than the public (except in Executive Sessions which, by law bars any media dialog, or public disclosures, PERIOD). The city attorney should take the councilors through a number of scenarios that will further clarify what is not only constructive public dialog but likewise what should not be mentioned because it is legitimately confidential. Elaborating further on what is sensitive versus confidential information should also be covered.
Rather than hire a ‘media expert’ who can chew up a whole day and run up a big bill wandering all around the mulberry bush talking about “The Zen of Communications” and how councilors shouldn’t hurt city hall, the council should simply have a public information session with the city attorney who can lay EVERYTHING out in an hour or two and at a much cheaper rate. What she will convey is that nearly every scrap of paper and 99.9% of what is said at city hall is within the public’s right AND DUTY to know, BUT WITH SPECIFIC EXCEPTIONS. It’s a short list. A very short list. And once this information is conveyed, there won’t be any need for “media management” schemes or backdoor suggestions on how to quickly get to “no comment.”