During his campaign for the Mayor's office, Bob Filner promised a new age of municipal transparency and announced that former City Councilmember Donna Frye, San Diego's queen of open government, would be among his first hires. The townspeople rejoiced.
Alas, we're nearly two months into the Filner era, and the figurative gates of the city are bolted shut. In fact, the city is far less open at this stage than it was at any point during Jerry Sanders' second term as mayor, when the ample communications department was really quite responsive to requests for information from the press and aggressively engaging on social media.
So far, it's been nearly impossible for any reporters in the city, including those whom Filner likes, to get questions—about anything, big or small—answered by his two-member communications staff. We suspect that it's not their fault; Filner brought with him a reputation for insisting on making every little decision himself. We suspect that press questions are fed to the mayor and end up languishing on a pile of things to do.
The one way Filner is being open is by crisscrossing the city, speaking to groups of people. It seems that the only way to get a question answered is by showing up at one of those appearances, which is easier said than done because most of the time, we don't know where he's going to be.
There are folks encouraging us to be patient, and aside from the occasional snide comment on Twitter, we have been patient. In fact, save for one U-T San Diego reporter who did a story on Filner's unresponsiveness to his question about the Mayor's office's initial hires, the entire San Diego press corps has been remarkably patient.
But if we—the folks at CityBeat—were to be honest with ourselves, we'd acknowledge that if this were Carl DeMaio not answering questions, we'd be screaming bloody murder by this point and asking what the little baby-faced anti-government crusader had to hide. (Truth be told, for all his many faults, communication with the public is something DeMaio is very good at—he's a marketing machine.)
We're gathering that Filner likes to communicate to the press and the people in his own way: public appearances and the occasional press conference, rather than answering questions as they come into the office. It's our guess that he's come to the conclusion that if a handful of reporters bitch and moan about not getting calls back or emails returned, well, there's not much of a public-relations downside to that; citizens aren't exactly going to pour into the streets, raise a ruckus and demand change. Filner can put money that Sanders put into communications into something he cares more about.
But that doesn't mean answering questions isn't important. Newspapers, radio, TV and the web are how people get information about how their government is spending their money and servicing their basic needs. The mayor controls everything in the city other than the City Council and the City Attorney's office. He controls police, fire, water, roads and sewers. Most of the time, the questions are basic and non-confrontational; often, we don't even need the mayor himself to answer it. The information we provide helps people make decisions for themselves and their families. Heck, when the matters are really serious, the mayor should want to get his side on the record.
Particularly when the media—or the public—are requesting government documents, it behooves Filner to provide them without delay. Judging from his performance so far, he interprets public-records statutes too narrowly at best and unlawfully at worst. CityBeat had a records request rejected this past week that we believe wasn't handled properly by the mayor. We fully support Filner's agenda of putting citizens before lobbyists and neighborhoods before special interests. We'd hate to see him and his team get bogged down in lawsuits over the dissemination of public records, which are sure to come if things stay as they are.
This is to say nothing of the possibility of a major public-safety or public-health disaster—another fire, an earthquake, a plane crash, widespread power failure, water contamination—and the mayor's ability to communicate quickly and effectively with the citizenry and keep us informed and safe.
We hope that Filner realizes sooner rather than later that it's in his best interest to work cooperatively with the press.
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