Monday, May 18, 2009

Allow Newspaper to Do its Job, Mr. City Manager

In a rather scathing "Voice of the Day" letter in the "Springfield News-Leader" on Sunday, City Manager Greg Burris asked the Queen City's daily paper of note to "Allow task force to do its job." The task force the headline was referring to was the Police and Fire Pension Citizen's Task Force.

My suggestion to Mr. Burris would be, let the newspaper do its job, and consider giving your own Public Information Office some instruction on how to better perform their jobs.

Burris' letter followed, almost a month to the day, what I, personally, would call a tantrum, thrown by past Mayor Pro Tem Gary Deaver, in which he stated he was planning to wait until after he left his Council post to come back to a City Council meeting and "...discuss some of the coverage that I've felt that we've received on the past," in News-Leader editorials.

The News-Leader's quick response to Deaver's charges of inaccuracy on the part of past editorials, which were most recently, at the time, pertaining to a trash hauler agreement between the city and its two largest trash companies, was answered swiftly in a March 25, News-Leader "Our Voice" column:

"Oddly, he [Deaver] had never asked us to clarify anything in numerous news stories and editorials, and he didn't ask to write anything to offer another opinion himself. He also never sought a correction on the issue...."

Sunday's letter from Burris carried on this, apparent, traditional view on the part of the city, it's officials and certain Council members, by further displaying "the City's" disdain for communicating with the public through, what should be, or, at least, could be, the most valuable medium available to them, the daily paper. Burris wrote:

"After I was asked to put together a citizen task force to study the police/fire pension issue, our city staff made a conscious decision to step back and let the task force do its work rather than engaging in the News-Leader's various pronouncements about the pension plan.

"I remain hesitant about responding, mainly because I don't want my response to infer that I'm giving the material credibility. But Sunday's self-aggrandizing editorial warrants comment for the sake of the task force and our public-safety employees."

I would say to Mr. Burris, much more credibility is given to editorial comments in a newspaper when they are not rebutted, if wrong, than when they are rebutted.

The public wants the facts. The public wants the truth and, I have found, is quite ready to accept it when it is shared. Don't blame the newspaper for the City Management and the City Council's unwillingness to engage in discussion and to correct mistakes, when made. You, and the City, have no one to blame but yourselves for not being forthcoming when erroneous information is shared. Take responsibility for that fact.

When the public hears nothing from you, your employees or elected superiors, after faulty information is shared, they have no recourse but to believe that the information must have been correct.

But, all that said, I wonder, why is the City Manager of the City of Springfield writing letters to the News-Leader? Why aren't errors or misrepresentations (if they exist) being dealt with by the Public Information Office when they occur? Why are such errors, presumably, based on Mr. Deaver's comments, allowed to continue to build suspicion in the minds of the public with no rebuttal or correction on the part of the City?

Springfield's City Manager should let the daily newspaper of note in Springfield do its job and should be asking his own Public Information Office to do their jobs, they are under the manager's authority, the writers of News-Leader are not. Perhaps, instead of expecting writers of the newspaper to cease sharing information with the public about the pension issue, the City Manager should be addressing the City's Public Information Office about dealing with these issues as they arise? Is this a task beneath them?

What is the purpose of the meetings of the Police & Fire Pension Citizen's Task Force being open to the public? Why do they have their own City of Springfield provided Web page, with links to documents of the task force available for download to the public? Because, as the City's elected, appointed, and hired servants have inferred, they want the public to be informed or, because it's the law and since they have no choice anyway they might as well put a good spin on it? I ask these questions because the public keeps hearing lip service from "the City" about how citizen input is desired, about how the city desires this process, and that process, to be open and transparent but, sorry, actions speak much louder than words.

Blaming the newspaper, because they have done their job in reporting about city issues, including the police and fire pension issue, for police and firefighters retiring at the first available opportunity? Really? If confusion about the issue is to blame, it would behoove the City Manager's office and City Council to clear up the confusion. If, as Burris wrote, the News-Leader's editorials are culpable for, "scaring firefighters and police officers into retiring as soon as they hit eligibility," one would think the City Manager would wish to make addressing errors within those editorials a top priority.

I'm one person. I don't have a staffed Public Information Office behind me but, when I see a mistake in the News-Leader, somehow, free of charge, and all alone, with no support, I manage to report it at this Web log. It's amazing to me that the City, with all its staff, can't manage to do what I, often, do for nothing, all alone, here at this blog.

Take responsibility for those under your charge, Mr. Burris.

The News-Leader is not under your charge, but, would benefit from the attention of your staff when they need to make corrections. If there is not enough money in the general fund to properly address important issues of the City, hmmm, how did we get there? Oh, I know, it's the News-Leader's fault. Maybe, had they not reported on the State audit of the City, that pension sales tax might have passed in February, then the City could have afforded to address public relations through its Public Information Office.

Funny, everything bad that happens is, often, someone else's fault these days.

Allow the media in this city to do its job, which, whether you like it or not, happens to be reporting on your actions, the actions of those under you and the actions of those who are your elected superiors.

If the City's message is not accurately being portrayed or the City is having trouble retaining personnel, perhaps the City needs to look within.

In the end, I think everyone is just trying to do their jobs.

It continues to trouble me that the City appears to prefer taking an adversarial attitude toward the print press in this city, rather than working with them, to make sure factual information is shared and properly understood.

Oh, one more issue. Burris mentioned, again:

"We invited the Save Our Springfield group the News-Leader champions to present its plan, which includes a "bias" toward a tax trade-off. (They declined the offer)."

JackeHammer sent out an email inquiry to one of the spokesmen of the SOS group the City Manager claims the News-Leader "champions," inquiring about why the group declined to make a presentation to the Pension Task Force. Darin Chappell responded to that inquiry on Friday or Saturday:

"I cannot speak for everyone, but I decided not make a presentation on my own account for two reasons:

First, the SOS plan was never designed to be a permanent solution to the problem. It was only supposed to offer a temporary band aid to allow the City time to do what they are now doing. So, going before the task force to tell them what they really cannot use for the final solution seems a bit pointless.

Second, I do not think that it would serve SOS for me to be the one to make the presentation, even if it needed to be made, given the recent events between the City and myself.

So, for both of those reasons, I told Mark Wright that I would not be presenting anything.

In the final analysis, I believe we accomplished all we set out to do in that we got the people thinking about other options besides tax the City to establish the task the Mayor to sign on to much of our platform (including reopening the police and fire academies), and most importantly, let the City know that we're watching."

A later email inquiry posted to Mr. Wright has not been answered.



Anonymous said...

The first Burris idea was a 200 million dollar tax increase,

... but that was before he knew the "honeymoon" of his leadership was already over.

Darin K. Chappell said...

The very nice email response that Mark Wright sent back to Mr. Burris was much more than a simple declination, by the way. It says quite a bit about the City in general, and Mr. Burris in particular, that he seems to be characterizing our decision as he is.

Regardless, I appreciate the News-Leader editorial page, and honest and accurate bloggers like JackeHammer for keeping the City and Mr. Burris facing the facts of their own responsibilities to the great City of Springfield!

Jackie Melton said...

Thanks for your comment, Darin.

If possible, I'd like to have a copy of the email Mark Wright sent to Mr. Burris?

I believe my readers would be interested in reading that email.

Darin K. Chappell said...

I'll see if I can't get a copy from Mark, Jackie...thanks again for what you do here!

Jackie Melton said...

Thanks, Darin.

You know, the press, and bloggers like me, can only provide information of interest to the public when others, regardless of their associations, are willing to engage in a dialog and share that information with us.

In my position, with no paper backing me and to write for, I appreciate all the support I can get! :)

Busplunge said...

I have a continual discussion with friends about where we will get our news when the SN-L goes under.

Blogs like this is where.

tom said...

Just to clear up an issue. I have asked and have been given a go ahead to present the SOS plan to the task force on Thursday night at 6:30 just after the Chamber of Commerce. Since I was seeking election as a council member and I did endorse the SOS plan on it's merits I asked various members of the group if they minded if I presented it to the task force. After receiving permission from various members of the organization I have decided this plan is something that needs to be reviewed since the most that have seen is the city tax increase proposal and the citizen group that also endorsed the proposal. I am going there to speak on behalf of the 52% that are not being heard at this point.

Jackie Melton said...

Thanks for letting us know, Tom.


Jackie Melton said...

...and bus driver, thanks for the support!