A change in the way Copperas Cove releases information may make life easier for some city officials, but it’s hardly a plus for the media — or the general public.
City Council members voted last month to route all media information requests through the city’s public information officer, Kevin Keller. The policy took effect March 20.
In the abstract, this move makes sense. Authorizing one person to disseminate city information guarantees a centralized, verifiable source for the media. It also lessens demands on city staffers who might otherwise be asked to field media inquiries.
But in this case, the city seems to have gone overboard in controlling the flow of information.
Under the new policy, employees in all city departments must go through Keller before speaking to the media. But beyond that, the policy calls for Keller to schedule the employees’ media availability and be present during interviews involving city employees.
As it’s designed, the new policy will serve to lighten the workload of high-level officials, such as the city manager and finance director — that’s a reasonable objective. But to apply the same requirements to all staffers is more a burden than a benefit.
For example, it’s hard to see how having Keller schedule and then sit in on an interview with the children’s librarian or Parks and Recreation director is a good use of anyone’s time.
One of the issues at play here is trust.
If the city is unwilling to authorize department heads to make their own decisions regarding statements to the media, it would seem to indicate a lack of trust in the judgment of those supervisory staffers. Further, the new policy would seem to reflect a lack of trust in the media and in their dealings with the city staff at-large.
For media outlets to be effective in providing readers and viewers with accurate and timely information, those outlets must enjoy a healthy, mutually respectful relationship with the governmental entities supplying that information.
But the new Cove policy works against such a relationship.
In the past few weeks, Herald reporters requested several pieces of information that are generally provided for the asking — such as building permits and city staff salary figures.
Those are no longer forthcoming; the Herald reporters were told they must file open records requests to obtain them.
While the issue of transparency is obviously in question here, the subject of timeliness is just as important. By delaying the imparting of information — either by controlling the interview process or requiring an open records request — the city is effectively diminishing a story’s news value to the reader or viewer. Whether the story is incomplete or after-the-fact, ultimately the public suffers.
How those open records requests are handled also begs scrutiny.
Following the recent departure of the city’s fire chief, the Herald was instructed to file an open records request in order to determine the circumstances surrounding his departure.
After making the Herald wait the maximum 10 business days authorized by the state’s Public Information Act, the city responded with a letter seeking clarification of the request. But just prior to that correspondence, the city granted another media outlet the same information.
Ed Sterling of the Texas Press Association said this sounded like a violation of the Public Information Act. He noted that once a requestor has been granted access to information, all other requestors must be given equal access to that information. In this case, the city should have notified the Herald of its right to the documents as soon as they were released — even if a clarification was needed in regard to additional documents.
The Herald finally received the information last week — nearly 30 days after the initial request.
Ultimately, Cove’s new media policy may be viewed by some as a necessary streamlining of the process.
But the city must be careful to balance efficiency with the public’s right to know.
Contact Dave Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7543