Since his election, Mayor Steve Bach has publicly insisted that his will be "the most open, transparent government in the history of our community."
But you know what they say: Actions speak louder than words.
And so, following a series of questionable decisions related to "transparency," the Bach administration took strides to right its ship at a July 14 press conference. First on the agenda was the announcement that bona fide media professional Cindy Aubrey will be the city's new communications director. Bach also laid out a laundry list of new ideas for further opening and democratizing the city government.
"We have a responsibility to build a dialogue with our constituents and the employees and the public," Bach said.
This could be a fresh start for Bach, who took heat in the press and behind the scenes for what looked like efforts to rein in media access.
Shortly before Bach took office, head of communications Sue Skiffington-Blumberg was forced to resign. The Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce's Stephannie Finley came to serve in an interim capacity for a month until a permanent replacement could be found.
On June 13, the same day Finley's tenure was announced, she denied the Independent an interview with the mayor, pending a meeting she said she was setting up with publisher John Weiss. Weiss says he actually had to call Finley to schedule the meeting Bach's office wanted, which is now set for August.
Finally, on June 15, at the request of chief of staff Steve Cox, an e-mail to all city workers told them not to communicate with the media on most issues, without first consulting with the communications department.
As for the new head of communications, rumors circulated that Laura Carno, who ran Bach's campaign public relations, or someone else in Bach's inner circle, might be selected.
A new leaf
But Aubrey, news director and 17-year veteran of KOAA-TV, doesn't fit that bill.
According to a city press release, Aubrey picked up skills at KOAA that will transfer well to the city position. She managed a staff of 40; handled budgeting and special projects; introduced technological innovations; used social media; produced debates, forums and town hall meetings; used branding and marketing; and served on volunteer boards.
Aubrey also made a point of stopping by the Independent offices the same day her hire was announced, to visit reporters and editors.
City communications employee John Leavitt, who applied for the position, says Aubrey is a good choice. "She's likely as committed to transparency and openness as we [the communications staff] are," he says.
Even her predecessor, Skiffington-Blumberg, has kind words.
"Cindy has been an outstanding news director and valued community partner," Skiffington-Blumberg states in an e-mail. "She will be a nice fit of media-focused skills and leadership. I wish her the best; she is inheriting a top performing team so she can be off and running from the start."
Aubrey, whose husband, Peter, also has a high-profile job in media relations for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, started Wednesday. She has a salary of $95,000, less than the $112,000 Skiffington-Blumberg earned at the time of her departure, and also less than Aubrey made at KOAA.
"Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Colorado Springs," Aubrey said at the press conference. "I want to be a part of the transformation. I'm honored to work with Mayor Bach."
Bach has made no secret of his intense interest in the communications department. He was quick to make communications one of four direct reports, and the department is moving from City Hall to the City Administration Building, close to his sixth-floor office.
Bach says Aubrey's staff will have an expanded role in dealing with the public and media, particularly in new ways such as social media. But he also wants to increase communications within the city. He and all department heads will go through training to be more effective communicators. He's created a position for a "council liaison," who will pass information between the mayor and City Council. And he wants the communications department to encourage dialogue within the workforce.
In his press conference, Bach said one of Aubrey's duties will be to run monthly meetings with city employees. The meetings, closed to the public and media, will be open to all employees and also available to them online. Bach wants city staff to share gripes and ideas at these "family fireside chats" in the hope that he can garner ideas to improve city government.
In a jaded moment, one might wonder if these meetings would work, given that complainers might fear reprisal. But Leavitt says that at similar past meetings, employees have been quite candid.
"People do not hold back," Leavitt says with a laugh. "People ask very tough questions in general, and I think it's healthy."
Bach, by the way, already has one idea about what to change in city government. He wants to add programs to draw minorities into city jobs and make the government more "reflective of the community." The programs, Bach said, might be public-based or done through a partnership.
Bach told reporters that idea came to him after watching the fire department academy graduate "22 white males and one white female." (The department says that class actually included two Hispanics.)
The media will likely hear updates on that plan and other changes to come at news conferences. Bach says he will have one every month.
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