Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
Typically, you can expect any article that’s critical of our local government officials to have some letters defending the official and some throw-the-bums-out letters.
That’s why I was surprised this morning that there were no I-told-you-that-man-was-no-good letters in reaction to the treatment of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ media policy published in Sunday’s U-T. As yet, it seems no one is jumping on the pity wagon for the press and a few gadflies who are irritated about the centralization of information dissemination at the city under Sanders.
Now, I don’t want to say this story shouldn’t have been written, because it’s good for the public to know how things operate at City Hall, and the information policy is an important aspect. But the overall tone of the article suggested that this was backward or tyrannical on Sanders’ part.
I totally disagree, and it looks like I’m not alone.
Intentionally or not, this article blurs the line between controlling the release of information and denying the release of information altogether. It’s a really important distinction.
There’s also a big difference between saying to the Reader, “We’re not going to engage in interviews because you’ve proved yourselves to be irresponsible,” and saying, “We’re not going to fulfill a properly filed Public Records Act request.”
One is smart. The other is illegal.
I think it’s also important to look at this information policy in context. No one questions or doubts that there is a level of extreme dysfunction at City Hall. Certainly the Union-Tribune, with its dense-but-informative Watchdog Reports on the various city departments, can’t question that. From everything I’ve read and heard from people working at the city, it’s basically like one of those homes you see every once in a while on the news with floor-to-ceiling trash and cats roaming around while its elderly inhabitants sheepishly explain they just like to have the past 20 years in newspapers in case they want to go back and read them.
This mayoral administration rode to victory on promises to clean up the mess, and they made no bones about the fact that they’d be applying corporate-management principles to do so. Well, let me tell you something about a well-run corporation: They don’t grant everyone in the organization permission to speak to the press. They usually have one contact who then either answers the questions or doles out the responsibility for answering questions to someone who knows the subject matter as well as the rules of engagement with reporters (i.e., if you talk to a reporter, they can quote you unless you’ve established it in advance as an off-the-record or “on background” conversation).
This is not secretiveness. It’s basic order. Like Sanders said in the article, he doesn’t want to find out about stuff by reading it in the newspaper. If the buck stopped with you, would you want to find out about what’s going on in the newspaper?
But whether you agree or not, the story didn’t make such a great case for why this policy was prone to lead to abuses. Let’s go through the story and discuss some of the quotes and contentions, shall we?
“In an interview, Sanders said he expects those who disagree with his decisions to express those views privately. But when those private conversations end and I have made my judgment,” he said, “I expect that all mayoral department employees will unify behind my decision and carry out the policies of my administration.”
Can I ask, since when is it oppressive to ask that your own staff respect your decisions – especially if they were given the opportunity to question them and discuss?
The story goes on to suggest the policy would “stifle whistleblowers who might be critical of him.”
But if Mayor Sanders were abusing his power, and someone was going to do some whistle-blowing, wouldn’t they need to be brave to do it even if they were authorized to talk to the press? Whistle-blowers, by definition, are not going to be cowed by such a policy. Plus, as whistle-blowers, they would have some job protections.
Here’s another fun one:
A high-ranking city official said the work environment at City Hall is ‘way more oppressive’ than under former City Manager Lamont Ewell, who resigned shortly before Sanders took office.
So…Lamont Ewell’s leadership of the city is the one we should look to as a shining example?
And forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but isn’t this high-ranking official criticizing Mayor Sanders in the press? Kinda blows holes in the case for stifling criticism, doesn’t it?
I get how a lot of the city employees could find the new rules annoying. People don’t like major changes in their work environments, particularly when they involve filing reports, but this is part of the mayoral administration’s avowed goal of running a tight ship. I’m sure lots has changed, and it might feel pretty oppressive by comparison.
But I bet those old folks in the cluttered up home hate to say goodbye to their newspaper collections, too.