On Wednesday, Telegram reporter Dan MacEachern started asking questions about a strange public notice from the City of St. John’s announcing a series of ward meetings on the especially contentious issue of parks and open spaces.
“Members of the media are welcome to attend any of the scheduled sessions as participants and ward residents,” it said, “however, the sessions and comments by participants may not be videotaped and/or recorded for broadcasting or reporting. Reporters interested in arranging interviews with (the consultants) or any representatives of the city may do so by contacting the city’s communications and public relations officer.”
So, they were to be public meetings — except they weren’t to be public.
This is the way the city’s communications staff explained the decision to MacEachern in a written statement delivered by email: “The ward sessions are intended to provide an open and safe forum for residents to freely express their thoughts related to parks and open spaces in our city. As such, we are requesting media respect the intent of these meetings as media presence may influence individuals’ comfort levels with speaking publicly. Members of the public may be intimidated by media reporting their thoughts and ideas. Our primary concern is to hear from residents. Any members of the media who wish to attend and to speak to individuals who are willing to be quoted, photographed or videotaped outside of the safe environment guaranteed by the city may do so, after we are finished. We appreciate your co-operation and, as always, will ensure you have ready access to all public figures you regularly have access to on this issue and all issues.”
So, now open, public meetings are an unsafe environment?
That is patently ridiculous.
There is only one reason to restrict media from a public meeting: to control what information is made public.
The City of St. John’s actually has had a reasonable record on openness. In past years, there have been cases where the city has simply supplied information upon request — the same information that the provincial government required access to information requests to obtain. And in some cases, those requests were later turned down in whole or in part by the province.
City councillors and staff have been accessible and approachable, without reporters having to request interviews and go through the filter of a paid communications staff — something the city now has in spades. Its communications budget grew from $109,950 in 2013 to $478,075 for this year, and now has five employees, consolidated in one office to provide “improved communications and citizen engagement.”
At least, that was the explanation from newly hired communications manager Susan Bonnell, who gave that explanation in an email after declining to be interviewed.
That sounds like a theme: when the CBC picked up the story, they also didn’t get an interview from communications staff. “No one from the city’s communications staff has said anything about the earlier statement on the media ban. Instead, calls were directed to (Coun. Dave) Lane,” the CBC story said.
It was left to Lane to say the planned policy had been reversed, that the media would be allowed to attend — and that it was all somehow a misunderstanding.
Now that’s communication at its best.
It would be a real shame if, at the same time the communications budget at city hall is the largest it’s ever been, the ability of staff and council to communicate with the public through the media was actually reduced.