City tries to bar the press 

In an effort to control news flow from City Hall, administrators have enacted a policy that severely restricts news reporters' access to public information.

City administrators say the policy -- which they claim will be evenly applied to all news organizations -- is designed to ensure that accurate and thorough information is disseminated and distributed to the community.

However, the policy, adopted without City Council approval on Oct. 27, has already stymied reporters' efforts to interview city employees and to gather information for timely news stories.

Documents obtained by the Independent show that the basis for the policy is not a continuing problem over factual inaccuracies in news stories, but the city administration's disapproval of how recent stories on issues being debated in City Hall have been reported by the local news media.

Included in the list of recent stories city managers have been unhappy about: Independent reports on the continued dearth of affordable housing and the city's cable-franchise agreement and fee that voters rejected early this month; and a Gazette story on how the city awards contracts to minority business owners.

Eugenia Echols, public communications manager for the city, said the policy will apply to all areas of government, including the city's enterprise operations like the utility company and Memorial Hospital.

"In the opinion of the city attorney's office, we're not restricting the media," Echols said.

The runaround

In the past, the city has had an open-door media policy. City staff have been empowered to speak about their projects to reporters. Now, Echols said, only specific spokespeople from the city's various departments will be authorized to talk to media representatives.

This week, Echols denied that reporters will be refused access to information, and insisted that written requests for information will only be required when written documents are being requested.

But in practice, reporters are already being hampered in their newsgathering, and have been told by city staffers -- and even department heads -- that press interviews are now prohibited.

Colorado Springs Business Journal reporter Sara Nesbitt said she has been thwarted trying to interview city staffers.

"My main concern is when I call for specifics on stories, they're going to have me talk to someone who isn't really familiar with the topic," Nesbitt said. "It just seems like a waste of time."

In recent weeks, Independent reporter Malcolm Howard attempted numerous times to interview several staffers for a story on a city-owned property. In each case, he was told all questions had to be submitted in writing and vetted through the city's public-relations department. The city, he was told, would respond to his questions in writing as well.

While working on another story related to police and firefighter salaries, Howard attempted to interview the city's director of finance, Mike Anderson, at an Oct. 25 City Council meeting.

Anderson, who oversees the city's budget, told Howard he would have to submit his questions in writing. Howard offered to write the questions on his reporters' notebook, but Anderson still refused

"I can't do that. I'd still have to run it past public communications," he said.

Such policies are anathema to most reporters. Sending written questions back and forth takes an inordinate amount of time; this makes follow-up questions nearly impossible; and most importantly, it allows public-relations personnel to massage the answers to give them "positive spin."

No more drafts

Echols cited last year's controversy over a city-ordered study over whether to move the statue of Gen. William Palmer Jackson sitting astride his horse in the intersection of Nevada and Platte avenues.

City managers had agreed to spend $12,000 to study whether the statue should be moved to improve traffic safety. After the Independent wrote about the plan, the public objected to the idea of moving the statue, and the study was tabled. While the story was factual, Echols said the issue exemplifies how citizens are led to believe that a final decision has already been made.

Echols said that under the new policy, requests for items being studied by city staff would be reviewed by her office and by the city attorney's office. Draft documents and items being studied or considered by the city could be refused for release to the press and the public, she said.

"In the perspective of the administration, when one story goes out and is inaccurate, it's a problem. It affects peoples' perceptions of what their government is doing," Echols said. "It's important that the information that goes out is accurate."

Correction or subjection?

An Open Records Request filed by the Independent with the city suggests that, at least for the past six months, the city has not complained much of irresponsible or inaccurate news coverage.

In the past half-year, only nine written responses to items that appeared in the media were generated by city staff.

Of those, one was a letter to the editor of The Gazette sent by City Manager Jim Mullen, responding to another letter writer. Another was a letter from the city manager to Gazette editor Steve Smith criticizing an editorial that appeared in the daily newspaper.

Of the other city-generated responses, only three addressed specific news stories that were aired or printed. One letter, criticizing the Independent's Sept. 30 cover story on the city's housing crunch, contained numerous subjective complaints about the content of the piece.

Echols said she generally prefers to contact editors or reporters by phone when she disputes facts in news stories, and estimates she initiates about three such contacts a month.

Last month, Echols said she contacted The Gazette twice for corrections on stories detailing the city's proposed annual budget. One item, in which an incorrect figure appeared, was corrected the next day. In another story, the reporter combined two numbers, and the paper's editors determined the figure was not inaccurate, Echols said.

The third "correction" that Echols said she requested, was not actually in response to an inaccuracy. The Hispania News inadvertently printed the home telephone numbers of the city's public-relations employees, and despite the error, Echols said neither she nor her staff received any calls from the public.

The mutating timeframe

The way the new policy was enacted is suspicious. The Independent first learned of its existence when reporter Malcolm Howard attempted to interview city employees on Oct. 18.

The following day, Echols informed Independent editor Kathryn Eastburn that the policy had already been written and approved.

Over the next week, Eastburn attempted repeatedly to obtain a copy of the policy. Finally, after submitting a request for the policy and other related material through the Colorado Open Records Act, public communications specialist Tim Burke responded.

In a voice-mail message, Burke said that Echols was at the moment attending a senior-management staff meeting where the policy of dealing with the media had been scheduled as a "significant" topic for discussion.

That was on Oct. 27 -- eight days after Echols claimed the policy had already been adopted. However, in a tape-recorded telephone message, Burke said of the policy, "It may be finalized at this morning's meeting."

Echols insists the policy was her idea. Yet more than two weeks after the policy was enacted, Echols said she has only contacted five media outlets to inform them of the change. Early this week, Echols said she has notified the City Hall reporter from The Gazette, the editor of Hispania News, Nesbitt of the Business Journal, the Independent and the news director at KKTV Channel 11. Other news outlets, including The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News, would be notified, she said.

The city has yet to release a list of the names of department heads and other staff members who will be allowed to be interviewed by the press.

"We're trying to name spokespeople who are closest at hand," Echols said. "We're trying to help you so you can help yourself."

This week, members of the City Council had also not yet been notified of the policy. During Monday's Council meeting, several councilors expressed concern over its implications.

"They want accurate information, but this smacks of some kind of secret government," said councilwoman Joanne Colt. "Why don't we know about this?"

Councilman Richhard Skorman said he planned to address the issue with City Manager Jim Mullen. Councilman Ted Eastburn said he understood the intent of the policy is to ensure accurate information is released to the media, but expressed concern that it could be misapplied.

"If I saw it as an effort to restrict access, I'd have a problem with that," Eastburn said.

'What are they hiding?'

Steve Rendell, a senior analyst with the New York-based media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said such policies restrict the media from doing their jobs.

"In a democracy, we're supposed to have free and open public agencies that are open and accountable to the public," Rendell said. "The public's main source of information are the news media, and in order for people to fulfill their roles as citizens in a democracy, they must be well-informed."

"In recent years, public agencies have increasingly developed more sophisticated strategies and subterfuge to deny public access to information," he said. "With the PR apparatus, government has become more strategic and defensive and is abandoning their jobs as public servants providing free and open information."

Christopher Lopez, deputy state editor for The Denver Post, called the city's attempt to regulate reporters "short-sighted" and said they are "creating a situation where there's friction where there doesn't need to be any."

"The city should be trying to open itself up to the public, not trying to regulate information that's flowing through City Hall," Lopez said. "You'd hope they wouldn't try to regulate the news that comes out of there, [but] would do the opposite -- tell everyone what they're working on and what the current debates are in City Hall."

Lopez said the policy will not affect his newspapers' approach. And, he said, the policy will do little to silence citizens who are involved in issues related to city-government operations.

"What they're proposing to do does not lend itself to community input," he said. "We become more interested in government agencies when they start to close the doors, because then it begs the questions, 'What are they hiding?'"

The Policy

Release of public information

Purpose: The intent of this policy is to ensure that the public receives accurate, thorough and timely information on the City of Colorado Springs.

Policy Statement: In addition to the Group Support Manager, each City Group shall designate a media liaison(s) for each unit within the group who will respond to media requests for information and interviews. Group Support Managers and media liaisons are authorized to make public statements about the operations and issues concerning Group policy. All requests for interviews should be coordinated with the Public Communications Unit Manager.

In accordance with the Colorado Open Records Act, requests for written materials should be received in writing and coordinated through the Public Communications Unit.

Group Support Manager Responsibility: The Group Support Manager shall be responsible for responding to media interviews, and for designating media liaison(s).

Approved by city administrators on Oct. 27, 1999


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