Sorry, this was not cleared yet
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
“Hello. Important city department head speaking. May I help you?”
“Yes, I’m a reporter with the widely read local newspaper and I was wondering when you planned to plow the snow on Chelan Avenue?”
“Sorry. I can’t say.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Yes, I mean no, I mean yes, I do know, but I can’t say.”
“And may I ever so politely ask why you cannot say?”
“Yes, thank you. I do know when we will plow Chelan Avenue, but I am not authorized to release that information.”
“Well, why not?”
“Because our plans for the copious snow on Chelan Avenue have not yet been reviewed by the City Council, and all information released to the media must be cleared by the council in advance. That is the rule.”
“But it’s Friday night. It’s snowing. The council doesn’t meet until Thursday. What am I supposed to do?”
“Let’s just say the snow likely will be removed before I am authorized to inform you when it will be removed. I would tell you that, if I was authorized to speak, which I am not, so I must decline comment at this time.”
“Well, gosh thanks for your dedication to duty.”
“I will seek permission to say you are welcome, but that didn’t come from me.”
I hope that conversation sounds silly. It unfortunately is not exactly farfetched, based on an official discussion at last week’s Wenatchee City Council meeting. As it was explained to me by our city hall reporter Michelle McNiel, some council members were uncomfortable with recent news reports regarding city policy. The report that Police Chief Tom Robbins would ask for new red-light cameras, or that the city was negotiating with the BNSF railroad about the relocation of its switchyard, had caught them off guard. McNiel said that Councilman Tony Veeder asked if it would be better if city press releases came from a single source with the City Council reviewing and approving the information in advance? This idea seemed to appeal to other council members. Then Mayor Frank Kuntz pointed out that they are elected officials and need not seek permission to speak, McNiel said. And city employees, including Chief Robbins, pointed out they deal with questions from media and reporters constantly and seeking clearance would make their jobs impossible. The council said fine, but if a city employee relays information to the media that is likely to generate news, they are instructed to email the details to City Council members immediately.
I am not going to chastise the council members for trying to stay informed, and for feeling a little left out when stories hit the paper, but this try for a semi-demi quasi backdoor gag order is wrong and unworkable for several reasons. The most important, the city is a government created to serve the public. Nearly everything it does is public business. Almost nothing it does can be a secret. Almost every record is available for public inspection on demand.
Most importantly, it is not within the City Council’s powers to tell the public what the public should or should not know about its government. That is the principle spelled out in state law. Public officials when asked questions by the public should be free to answer without seeking authorization. The law requires that they supply public records upon request. It follows that they should be able to speak freely as well. Open government is the rule. Elected officials controlling what the public knows is not.
I know the intentions of the council are not malicious. Nobody likes to be blindsided, but there are many times when the news will not wait for their say-so. Asking their employees to send an email after answering public questions is unnecessarily intimidating and could stifle the flow of public information. Public officials could fear being second-guessed.
I put in a call to Councilman Veeder this morning to get his side of the story, but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to hook up with him. So this column, comments based on a second-hand account of an event at a public meeting, will have to suffice. I’m sorry if anyone is blindsided or unpleasantly surprised, but I have to get this out in the next hour. Sometimes you just can’t check in with the City Council before you go to press.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.
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