When I first saw the City Council agenda, the alarm bells should have gone off. It was an item on this week’s council agenda, something innocuous, sounding like “communications policy proposal.” For a moment, I forgot the rules known to all reporters who cover governments.
Rule #1: If it sounds innocuous, it usually isn’t.
Rule #2: If you can’t figure out from the agenda what the item is all about, that usually isn’t an accident.
Rule # 3: If it’s on late in the council meeting — by the time everyone’s gone home — it’s probably important, and someone wants to bury it so it won’t get noticed.
Rule #4: Almost always, every agenda item has a staff report, so if the staff report is missing, that definitely is not an oversight.
Rule #5: If, when the reporter gets to the meeting, the only ones who seem to have copies of the staff report are the council members, and they say they forgot to make enough copies for the audience or the press, so nobody quite knows what they’re talking about, you can bet that someone is trying to pull a fast one.
And pull a fast one they did. In fact, Tom Hasse was the author of this little cutie that slipped the equivalent of a Mickey to his four other council members. He got them to unanimously agree to a new council communications policy, which is a nice way to say a set of gag rules calculated to hide what they’re doing from the press and the Malibu public, lest we find out and be upset.
This is how Hasse thinks the city ought to handle News Media inquiries:
“All news media inquiries on city policies, campaigns, political issues and decision making that is within the policy making jurisdiction of the City Council shall be referred to the mayor and city councilmembers.” Since that covers just about everything, the message to the staff is clear — don’t ever talk to the press or you’re in trouble.
“News media inquiries concerning the City Commissions shall be referred to the chairperson of the respective city commissions.” That means no planning commissioner is to talk to the press; they are to refer it all to their chair, Jo Ruggles.
“No city department directors, or the Sheriff’s Department, or city contractor or city consultant shall respond to the news media inquiries without the express authorization of the city manager.” That means the planning director shouldn’t talk to the press, the building and safety officers shouldn’t talk to the press; in fact, none of them should talk to the press.
And so it goes on. However, to be fair, they add:
“Nothing herein shall prevent bonafide newsgathering organizations from attending open and public city government meetings.” Nice, since it would be against the law to try and keep us out.
Well, I got news for you, Tom Hasse. It won’t work. It never works because there are decent, honest people working for this city, and they’re not about to let themselves be pushed around. The information always gets out.
P.S. In case you think this is just for the press, they have rules about who can talk to Malibu-based homeowners associations/property owners associations/community associations; local political organizations; nonprofit organizations; trade, business, and professional associations; service clubs, social and philanthropic organizations; art, theatrical and cultural associations, sports, leisure and recreational group and associations, advocacy organizations; businesses and local school events and associations
P.P.S. This will come back for a second reading. Let’s get sensible and stop this obsessive need to try and control everything.