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'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.

Period.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?

Comments

 +   23 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 13, 2020 at 1:25 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

It is critical that those of us who serve in public roles feel free to speak out on issues subject only to making it clear that we are speaking as an individual and not for whatever public entity of which we might be a member.

Any attempt to stifle such comments is ill advised and counterproductive.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 13, 2020 at 2:10 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

I wouldn't go as far as saying "don't talk to the press." I would be careful talking to the media. There's a difference.


 +   18 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 13, 2020 at 3:57 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Based on my long experience dealing with the media, these are quite mild restrictions.

1. The guidance to a BCC to say that they are speaking for themselves is silly. I don't remember a single instance where the reporter heeded this. They will take what has been clearly and explicitly presented as a personal statement and present it as a statement for the organization. Thus the guidance to not speak to the media is excellent advice. As a citizen, I regret that this is the case, but it is the rational response to long-established media conduct.

2. It takes significant training to minimize the media taking quotes out of context and editing quotes to present the reporter's agenda instead of reality. This is nothing new. Back in the 1970s when I was primary media contact for an organization, I regarded as a successful interview one that resulted in a media report where half my quotes were recognizable (not accurate) and presented in something resembling the context in which they were given.

3. "A reporter's job is to explain things they don't understand to ..." is a quote dating back to at least the 1960s and possibly evolved from one in the 1890s. Many years ago, a City Councilmember related to me that he was trying to explain a complex issue to a local reporter and got cut off with "I don't need to understand this. I just need enough for a story."


 +   14 people like this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of Mountain View,
on Oct 13, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Common sense is a registered user.

Thank you Douglas Moran for pointing out more of the context here.

Many of us have encountered cases of the "reporter's agenda" issue, which somehow doesn't get as much attention from the news media itself as it might.

My favorite example (though a trivial one) happened many years ago. I was carpooling with a professor specializing in semiconductor device fabrication. A grant had been awarded for new research on making ultra-small structures in the laboratory (or something along those lines) -- basically, new areas of applied physics and chemistry. The professor complained that he'd been interviewed by the university's campus newspaper, and after giving a conscientious explanation of the research to the reporter, the reporter asked, seemingly in passing, "could it have military applications?" to which the professor replied that he supposed it might, like anything else (after all, pencils have military applications). What he complained to us in the carpool was that the published story ignored almost all the information he'd supplied, but opted for the dramatic headline "New technology may have military application."


 +   19 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 13, 2020 at 4:46 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I'm for dumping the PR person and putting that money into the libraries.

Seems like they are sending a message that you should not apply for a commission unless you are willing to sit on your hands and just not along to the party line.

It also seems to say that a commissioner can now be removed from his seat for any reason by council, who don't have to give said bad commissoner a reason or a hearing. That doesn't sound legal either.

Palo Alto is the only place that uses the Brown Act to gag so-called leadership.

Somfring wotten im da stay uh demma (sound of delivering a famous line while being gagged)


 +   18 people like this
Posted by Steven Goldstein, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Oct 13, 2020 at 6:09 pm

Steven Goldstein is a registered user.

I understand the frustration with regards to the guidelines described here.

BUT

When one wants to communicate ANYTHING deviating from the accepted policy of any city. county, state, or country, it is common sense to divorce yourself from the governmental agency or government you work for. It is your PERSONAL opinion and NOT the CITY, COUNTY, STATE, or FEDERAL approved messages.

Thereby your First Amendment rights are NOT infringed.

Otherwise, it is far more intelligent to delegate those OFFICIAL communications to your professionals that are DELEGATED that responsibility, right?

It also ensures that no CONTRADICTORY messages occur which can do widespread damage to people and the governments involved.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 13, 2020 at 7:35 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The easiest way to avoid being misquoted by a reporter is to use online forums and social media where YOU have total control over what YOU post/say.

I think it is unfortunate that most public officials lack the skill or courage to use such public forums.


 +   14 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 14, 2020 at 8:11 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"I think it is unfortunate that most public officials lack the skill or courage to use such public forums."

Agreed but I think it's more of a conscious decision so they can avoid questions and/or claim plausible deniability.

Thank you for covering this. It seems like more stonewalling from the bloated, costly and inefficient city manager's office.


 +   27 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 14, 2020 at 8:20 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"Statements to the media should generally be avoided. If asked, route questions through the Chair in collaboration with the City's Chief Communications Officer."

>"So what's a commissioner supposed to do? Avoid talking to the press?"

^ In terms of Palo Alto municipal issues, apparently so as city officials seem to believe that the dissemination of public information is on a 'need to know basis' & they cannot afford to have commission members speaking directly to the media and possibly expressing views that may question or challenge the internal 'party line'.

Perhaps the city administrator/staff positions should have a prefix added to their official job titles...'Comrade'.




 +   15 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 14, 2020 at 8:36 am

Online Name is a registered user.

This seems SO drastic. Anyone know what precipitated this gag order?


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 14, 2020 at 12:16 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Diana Diamond, your post above is blank.


 +   22 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 14, 2020 at 12:24 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "I wouldn't go as far as saying "don't talk to the press." I would be careful talking to the media. There's a difference."

^ Isn't the press & the media pretty much the same or were you referring to print media vs broadcast media?


 +   10 people like this
Posted by DIana Diamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 14, 2020 at 7:50 pm

DIana Diamond is a registered user.

Lee --

By "the press," ZI am referring to the print press and the a=major broadcasting companies, all of which operate under traditional journalistic guidelines regarding fairness, honesty, checking on facts, etc.

I am not referring to most of the social media -- offshoot blogs, political orgs, etc.

Diana


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 15, 2020 at 8:57 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

Lee,

The press and the media ARE the same thing. It's not any different than saying police officer or cop. Or lawyer or attorney. I think you're smart enough to know this.

Diana --- he was quoting my comment above.


 +   20 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 15, 2020 at 12:18 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"The press and the media ARE the same thing....I think you're smart enough to know this."

^ Very reassuring as semantic clarifications (or lack thereof) have been critical in 2020.


 +   10 people like this
Posted by DIana Diamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 15, 2020 at 6:38 pm

DIana Diamond is a registered user.

Lee -- SociL Media is not the same as the printed press (with an editor to assure the info is correct). Anyone can putty kind of information on social media, much of which is not necessarily true or accurate.

Diana


 +   23 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 16, 2020 at 12:50 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Notice that commenter "DIana Diamond" is not the same name as the blogger: notice the capital "I" in the second position.


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 16, 2020 at 8:40 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"...the a=major broadcasting companies, all of which operate under traditional journalistic guidelines regarding fairness, honesty, checking on facts, etc."

>"...not the same as the printed press (with an editor to assure the info is correct).

^ That is debatable as there are numerous examples of exceptions and/or oversights..


 +   5 people like this
Posted by obviously anonymous, a resident of another community,
on Oct 17, 2020 at 9:47 am

obviously anonymous is a registered user.

post removed


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 17, 2020 at 1:08 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I re-formatted the above as a list of 41 statements or questions:
ideas numbered in my treatise on commissions:

1. is this handbook proposal part of a pattern to deliberately quash dissent and discourage civic engagement?
2. it discusses deportment and not composition;
3. board seats are part of a spoils system;
4. Leadership, quixotically, has eliminated 13 seats for aspirants and participants:
5. council member can remove from his or her seat any commissioner for any reason whatsoever; what do you mean by majority vote but no hearing?
6. I suggest we get rid of the staff PR Person;
7.We should select for such, not ban it. being outspoken;
8. is palo alto actually run by a small list of property owners?
9. Would we not be cutting the 2021 budget had we taxed corporations here, for example, 2009 thru 2019?
10. What would be accomplished, for example, for the least of our brethren, were we not obsessed with accommodating the real estate tsunami and rout?
11. I was in a workshop where we debated five types of growth rather than thinking for a minute about “no growth"; is "no growth" a taboo?
12 We gutted our Comprehensive Plan to eliminate the Downtown Cap rather than deliberating even for a minute a moratorium on building.
13 How does that dramatic (in real estate values) increase threaten democracy? Is too much of a good thing a bad thing?
14. How does Black Lives Matter influence our thinking about governance?
15: Why don't we consider, for example these three pending and potential real estate plays in conjunction: Ventura Fry's (39 acres), Castilleja (many acres) and Cubberley (32 acres)?
16. Why didn't we consider simultaneously Buena Vista and Maybell " blocks apart?
17 What is the effect on self-governance of the proliferation of semiconductors, computers and social media? Since 2009?
18 what is the effect of Palo Alto having no true press here?
19 What is the impact of Covid and the substitution for a mediated governance ie via Zoom compared to a true participatory democracy?
20 Why don't you poll the most recent 100 people who applied for commissions but were not seated? Or interview 40.
21. Dubois and Cormack are ironic choices for this task since neither or them served as a commissioner:
22 I think these maneuvers are related to who moved elections from odd to even years, who reduced council from 9 to 7.
23 Did we ever discuss sufficiently the grand jury report?
24 why not put more energy intro recruitment of boards?
25 Were people aware of this deliberation? (started late)
26 How did this get on the agenda?
27 would HRB be necessary if we had people of coor on other boards?
28 Why does't arts commission program performing arts?
29 is civic engagement still a goal or value here?
30 How much staff time is spend on the work of boards?
31 is it odd that we build a new library then eliminated a library commission "are we substituting bricks for people? (there was also the example of a white paper by an ad hoc library board that we rejected by council)
32 why would a board hand book or discussion of roles of boards be tied up in a branding exercize? Logos for commissions, sloganeering (“birthplace of Silicon Valley"
33. What is the difference between a board and commission? Why BCC not CBB? Why not “BCC" rather than “BCC member" Doesn't BCC already mean, ironically enough “blind copy of correspondence"? We are gagging them but also blinding them?
34. Why term limits?
35. Why the specific prohibition to protect staff ?
36 Why would the Chief Communication Officer " is she known as the CCO? " be included in so many conversations? Does she go to all the meetings? Does she have a handbook? Who wrote it?
37. Historically, has the chair of a commission indicate a willingness or aptitude to take on more responsibility? How many council members were previously commissioners? How many of those were also “chair"? Isn't it just a courtesy of formality, a taking of turns rather than a sorting?
Isn't the point of having a chair about showing there is not a hierarchy? This seems to be codifying a hierarchy?
38. Can staff cite a list of time the press has confused the difference between a commissioner making a statement and his being mistaken for the board position or the position of the chair? Is this significant? I cannot think of a single example.
39 How would council take a vote on removing a commissioner without having a hearing? Or the author is suggesting there would be a hearing, maybe even with public deliberation, but no chance for the accused to explain himself or apologize. If we eventually have a Grand Inquisitor, will he be appointed, elected or self-selected?
40 is there a similar document somewhere about how to recall council?
41. Why aren't council members and commissioners required to publish their addresses?


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Diana Diamond, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 17, 2020 at 3:29 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Mark -
This is not the appropriate place to have a 10,000? 15,000? 20,000?-word comment on a blog I have written. It was a long rant expressing your views. So I hid it from public view.

I kept your second 41-point response about what's wrong with the city, but that, too, is too long. Please don't use this space for your lengthy views.

Thank you. Diana


 +   8 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 19, 2020 at 9:58 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"It is critical that those of us who serve in public roles feel free to speak out on issues subject only to making it clear that we are speaking as an individual and not for whatever public entity of which we might be a member."

^ On a national level, we are currently witnessing & experiencing this issue when it comes to various viewpoints towards effectively dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

One one hand...we have public health officials (via their projections & precautionary advisements) VS the administration's firm 'political' stance (aka denials) to the contrary.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Oct 20, 2020 at 10:34 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

I listened to the PACC meeting last night - to the end - which had comments from the public - mostly on this topic. WOW - people sat through the fiscal dilemmas of the city which affect us all - reduction in city services, then at the end people were talking about law suits. Law suits cost money. Are they trading law suits for basic city services? WOW - what a concept.

What I came away with is that most corporations are run from the top down. Most people who actually work in corporations understand that and learn to navigate within the company goals. It appears that this city is run from the bottom up. People on committees arrive at conclusions then forward those up the chain with the expectation that what ever they arrived at is what is going to happen.

Given the number of different committees there may be no consensus on the overall affect on the city budget. The budget is very limited.

The other operating issue is that people sign on for committees with a wide range of goals. Some are building their resume for further political pursuit. Others are just contributing time and effort for their own local involvement.

Those in political expansion mode may belong to a specific wing of a party that has stated goals above the city level - so they are trying to conform this city to those goals. Any goal has to fit within the budget of the city and compete with other goals as to what choices the city has to make. Possible contention as to which set of political goals is in play at any time. The general public has their own political goals - or lack thereof -and just want the city to function as a whole without all of the hoo-haw.

My take on this is that the "city" has a once a year meeting - which I have attended in the past - where the goals for the year are discussed and agreed upon. The public gets to attend and contribute so all have had their say and the collective goals of the city are explained to the general public - and committees.
If effectively done then each committee has a collective agreement of what the actions are for the year for any one committee. And everyone understands that the budget is limited so any suggestions that any one committee makes understands that their take on any issue is limited by resources - manpower and funding.

This year has been a trial. But our next year is coming up so hopefully there can be a public meeting in which anyone can contribute their hopes for the year and a general understanding is produced which explains how the year will proceed and what the limitations are in funding.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 21, 2020 at 10:49 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

My take is it a small group of rich people control all the shots here


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 21, 2020 at 10:52 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Web Link
County assessor Larry Stone office says that Palo Alto is $42 billion on the tax rolls so by “Rich" I mean people who control Chunks of that in 10 million to a couple billion dollars AUM, And don't want to hear from loudmouth an idealist and people who studied civics at Gunn high school in the 70s


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 21, 2020 at 10:52 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Web Link
County assessor Larry Stone office says that Palo Alto is $42 billion on the tax rolls so by “Rich" I mean people who control Chunks of that in 10 million to a couple billion dollars AUM, And don't want to hear from loudmouth an idealist and people who studied civics at Gunn high school in the 70s


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 21, 2020 at 11:23 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Ibid, page 10: $39.9 billion in net taxable assets in Palo Alto (total assets minus exemptions)
Is too much of a good thing a bad thing? (I'm suggesting it creates temptation to game the system, including both who gets seated and, here, what they can or cannot do...)
See also: “Citizens United" " are corporations Palo Altans too?


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