As premier, Kathy Dunderdale loved to say that more information on Muskrat Falls has been released than on any other project in the province’s history.
St. John’s City Hall. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
It’s a message that Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley has also been known to parrot.
What neither would acknowledge — but which both well know is true — is that when you’re talking about information, quality trumps quantity. The sheer amount of documentation the government has provided is quite beside the point if none of it answers the questions people are asking.
St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe must have sat in on a similar indoctrination session, because he is now saying that by restricting the information the city provides — by managing its message — it is making things more open and accountable and is fostering improved public engagement.
Asked recently by a citizen why the city was planning to ban the media from recording comments made by members of the public at a so-called “open” meeting on parks and green space, O’Keefe replied, “Unfortunately, the media has put its own spin on a very positive move by the city to engage more people on issues and allow them to speak more openly.”
Let’s get this straight: our open court system permits members of the media to be present as representatives of the public, to cover trials involving disturbing and often graphic testimony regarding sexual assaults, stabbings, child molestation and murder, but we could be barred from recording what taxpayers have to say about where they think a park should go.
Who’s spinning whom here?
When the city’s three-year-old communications policy was criticized by Coun. Art Puddister, who said at this week’s council meeting he planned to try to change it in order to make city council more open and transparent, O’Keefe got huffy.
“Good for you,” he said sarcastically.
“City council cannot be more open and more transparent, councillor, than it presently is. And the whole idea of the change was to make it more open and more easier for the media to access staff as well as councillors.”
But that’s not what’s happened at all.
Three and a half years ago, the city hired its first spokesperson. Now it has three or four on staff. This is not a big city. Why do they need that many?
Before, reporters could call city staff directly and ask questions on issues that relied upon staff expertise. Now, that request for information is supposed to be channelled through the communications department, which gathers only the information the city is willing to provide and scripts it for public consumption.
Councillors and the mayor will often give interviews, but try contacting staff directly and you will be chided by the communications department for doing so.
“The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.” — Niels Bohr (1885-1962) Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist
O’Keefe said at this week’s council meeting that the communications policy now enables the media to contact him “directly” by first contacting communications staff, who will track him down and tell him such-and-such a reporter is trying to reach him. There’s absolutely nothing “direct” about that.
“I call as soon as I get that message,” O’Keefe said.
Well, not quite.
After the provincial budget was tabled, O’Keefe did not respond to The Telegram’s attempts to contact him at his office or by cellphone. A full day later, the city issued a news release on the budget.
Why didn’t the mayor get back to us directly? Ask him (via the communications department, of course).
Perhaps he figured by waiting a day to respond he’d get more ink than if he was lumped into budget-day coverage that contained comments from several other municipal leaders.
This week, when news broke that the city manager’s contract would not be renewed, The Telegram tried the mayor’s office, cellphone and even his home, as well as the communications department, to ask for comment.
The communications department said the city would not comment on the matter aside from the terse news release it had issued. But that’s the point — the communications department said. Journalists don’t want to talk to the communications department, they want to talk to decision-makers at city hall who were put in place by voters and whose salaries are paid by taxpayers.
Mayor O’Keefe couldn’t be more wrong on this issue. Clearly, he has bought into the notion of controlling the message instead of communicating directly with the people the city is supposed to serve.
As for the city’s media policy, it’s just that — the city’s policy.
It’s not the media’s policy, and journalists should continue to directly contact the people they need to speak to who have the information required to answer questions and offer explanations so that we can better inform taxpayers.
Or has the city followed the provincial government’s lead in this regard, too, and muzzled its staff?
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton