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Misdirected policy must go 

Last week, The Colorado Springs Independent reported on the establishment of a disturbing new policy City Hall has adopted which directly affects the media's ability to cover local government operations. (see "City tries to bar the press," Nov. 11)

The new policy, adopted with the blessing of City Manager Jim Mullen but without City Council approval, has already restricted the ability of reporters to obtain timely information about pertinent issues impacting our community and its citizens.

City spokesperson Eugenia Echols claimed the policy was a result of the city's frustration with the number of factual errors appearing in the Independent, in The Gazette and in broadcast reports. But an Open Records request from this paper revealed that, in fact, the city's few criticisms of the past six months have been based on subjective criteria and were not legitimate factual challenges. In none of the cases involving this paper did the city ever request a correction.

It appears that the real reason for the policy was largely that Mr. Mullen did not like how the Colorado Springs media in general, and the Independent in particular, have been covering City Hall of late.

And in another act designed to communicate his displeasure, Mr. Mullen recently instructed his minions to abruptly cancel, in mid-contract, the city's annual advertising agreement with the Independent.

Like the rudely inflicted public-information policy, this decision is a punitive one, designed to slap the hands of those who would report the news in a way that displeases the city administration.

What Mr. Mullen doesn't seem to remember is that he works for the citizens of Colorado Springs. And as citizens who don't like being bound and gagged, we think it's time for our elected representatives, the mayor and City Council, to step in and demand the newly instituted public-information policy be rescinded immediately.

The policy clearly restricts the First Amendment rights of public employees as well as the press, and was instituted without input from either of these affected parties or from the public. Installing rigid requirements -- including requests for documents that must be submitted in writing, and limiting the number of experts who can talk to members of the media -- will do nothing to improve the quality, thoroughness, accuracy or efficiency of the print and broadcast media. In fact, restricting access will have the opposite effect.

Despite its ostensible purpose, to bring clarity to news reporting, the policy will ultimately increase the likelihood that misinformation will be reported by hindering reporters' access to the city staffers working most closely on the project at hand. The funneling of information through media ombudsmen, and then through the city's public-information office for a final look, increases the likelihood of misinterpretation and inaccuracy by adding extra people to the equation.

Think of it this way: Would you rather get information about your city government from the person working on the project in your neighborhood, or from the top-level manager who has little working knowledge of the project in question but may be beholden to larger political agendas?

Until this policy is repealed, the information that you get through this newspaper and other venues will be seriously compromised. And this issue isn't just about the Independent, The Gazette, or any other local media outlet that tries to cover City Hall. This is about the quality of independent information that taxpayers receive via local media outlets.

City Council needs to decide what kind of city Colorado Springs is going to be -- one that is open and responsive to its citizens and the press, or one in which information is restricted in an attempt to craft a corporate image. Does the city want to encourage open discussion and debate of issues that affect its citizens, or does it want to operate in secrecy?

We urge our elected leaders to do the right thing -- demand that this poorly conceived, badly executed policy be rescinded immediately.

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