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By Diana Diamond

'Don't talk to the press'

Uploaded: Oct 13, 2020

In a proposed new handbook for some 41 members on Palo Alto's boards and commissions, one recommendation from city staff states that these council appointees should avoid talking to the press.

That would certainly ensure less transparency in this city.

Late last year, City Manager Ed Shikada told the council that some commissioners were talking to the press, and these mixed messages from them were confusing some residents, and some commissions were talking about items the council was not interested in. The council decided that the city should develop standards and guidelines for these commissioners, in a "broad and general way," according to council member Eric Filseth, who was mayor at the time. The council did not mention talking to the press rules. Council members Tom DuBois and Alison Cormack were asked to work with staff on general instructions.

Now we have a 33-page single-spaced handbook written by staff, filled with proposed regulations for commissioners. Filseth said he was unaware of the rules about talking with the press; DuBois told me he read it just before I called him and the two council reps did not write the report.

There are seven boards and commissions, all of whom meet regularly. The no talking to the press story was first reported by the Daily Post.

I went through the document, scheduled for council discussion at this upcoming Monday, Oct. 19 meeting. The several-page executive summary contained no mention of interaction with the press. Nor was this in a summary of the proposals. So I looked at the index of the document, and under the rules for commissioners, the last item was "Addressing the Media and the Public."

The first part read, "Statements to the media should generally be avoided. If asked, route questions through the Chair in collaboration with the City’s Chief Communications Officer." Then it goes on to say: "When addressing the media, observe the following guidelines: You must clarify who you represent as the speaker. Are you speaking in your capacity as a BCC Chair or as a private resident? Keep in mind that a member’s comments to the press or other public comments are sometimes misinterpreted even though the BCC Chair states that they are speaking for themselves. • Do not make promises to the public that are binding on the BCC, staff, or the City Council. • Comments to the media or the public should be factual and accurate. Avoid speculation."

So what's a commissioner supposed to do? Avoid talking to the press? But if s/he doesn't, then the person has to follow all these recommendations, which sound like a terrible way for the press to know what is really going on at these meetings. Why all this control? And why avoid speculation, like "I think if we word this right, the council will approve?"

Why can't there just be a single recommendation stating that any commissioner, when talking to the press, should make sure they say they are speaking as one member of the commission, and their views do not represent the entire commission's views.

One question -- I wonder who wanted this gag order for commissioners? Obviously it was buried in this document. Why?

The public understands commissioners’ views differ from each other. And there is no singular message expected -- just look at all the 4-3 city council votes.

And why in the world does the chair of a commission have to work "in collaboration with the City’s Chief Communications Officer," a staff person? Commissions should not need any staff approval in making their recommendations to the council. The council runs the city, not the staff.