Phoenix: Back up and try again
Too much confusion surrounds the mayor's memo on communication
A memo might clarify a fuzzy policy, but it can't fix a broken one.
That's why we think Phoenix's leaders need to do more than write a memo explaining their new directive on how government will communicate with the public. What's called for here is a retreat ' and a new examination of the issue at the City Council's meeting on Monday.
Phoenix gained the kind of attention no city wants this week after new Mayor Vicki Bear announced the rule, saying the council had requested that much of the communication between city government and everyone else go through her.
Please direct any questions to my attention, she wrote in an e-mailed message to media contacts on Monday. Should I be unavailable I will let you know that I will be turning over the responsibilities of media contacts to the City Council president. ... Please refrain from contacting department heads or employees. ...
But by Wednesday, the rule apparently designed to streamline communication had made it messier than ever. Bear said newspaper stories, including one in the Mail Tribune, had made it sound more expansive than she'd intended. Then she and at least one council member began to debate it themselves.
We have our own issues with the city's attempt to focus ' control ' information. Less information coming from city offices means less information for the public, which, after all, elected Bear and the council to serve.
— What goes on in City Hall ' or the school administration building or the state Legislature ' is the public's business and the public deserves to be fully informed rather than fed political spin. If every message from the city of Phoenix must be vetted by the mayor, what are the chances that the full story will emerge? Somewhere between slim and none, we suspect.
Bear has said the new policy was a concept agreed to by council members in a Jan. 31 workshop open to the public. But two council members missed that meeting, and the rule was never put in writing or explained to city employees.
If that inspired a lot of squawking over what Phoenix is up to, no wonder.
By Thursday, Bear had pledged a memo to the employees explaining the order and what they should and shouldn't say.
But a memo's not enough to fix what's broken here. For beginners, what within the city has caused the mayor not to trust employees to speak out? Why does she believe that she must control the message, while administrators in much larger cities allow their department heads to talk about their areas of specialty?
The city should clearly address the issues raised in this debate. The public ' and all of the council ' should be involved in the discussion, and whatever emerges from that discussion should be first based on the premise that the public be fully and impartially informed about city issues.
Bear, a registered nurse when she's not running Phoenix, seemed genuinely surprised by the distress and confusion over the announcement. She said she intended a simple solution to issues of growth, not to create conflict. Our decisions are so many and so varied that there's no way everybody can know what's going on, she said.
That's true in city government, and it's true about this decision as well. All the more reason to make sure the people in city government who do know what's going on do not feel constrained from providing information to the public.
Council members appear ready to reconsider or at least clarify the policy. We do believe they want to do what's best for the city and we hope they understand that encouraging full and free discourse is a step toward accomplishing that.