I thought Jean Stothert's administration, with all of their promises to do better, would manage to avoid tripping over themselves for at least a week. But here we are: three days into the new administration, and they're already making headlines with self-inflicted wounds:
In a Wednesday memo to city department heads, Stothert ordered that no “department directors or any staff member of any city department” speak to the news media without prior review or approval from Stothert's chief of staff or spokeswoman.Stothert's chief of staff Marty Bilek painted it as a simple "let us know first" move. No one, in their estimation, was being prevented from talking to the press - they were just being told to keep the Mayor's Office in the loop.
Except, that's not what the memo - which was published by the Omaha World-Herald - said.
Reviewed and approved. If the Mayor's Office doesn't like what you're going to say, according to this memo, you are not to speak to the media. This goes not only for department directors, some of whom would answer directly to the Mayor in any case, but also all city employees. Stothert's spokesperson later clarified that this would not apply to police or fire personnel at a crime scene or fire.
One doesn't have to look hard for motives, of course. Stothert has made no secret of her desire to be rid of Fire Chief Mike McDonnell, who as a director of a department that is over budget in large part because of a contract negotiated by Ms. Stothert, has not been shy about pointing out the consequences of that contract. But Chief McDonnell is protected by the city charter from dismissal absent cause. So Stothert's goal is clear: find cause, or force McDonnell into retirement. The timing of this cancelled interview with McDonnell strongly suggests that this was all about the fire chief.
But the problem goes beyond political retribution. Even if the administration issues a mea culpa and rescinds the policy, the damage is now done. Nothing we hear from this administration can now be treated as factual, unpolished, free of spin. Everything is tainted by the implication that it had to be reviewed and OK'd before going to print. And should a city employee uncover something that the Mayor's Office wouldn't want the media - or the public - to know, the implicit threat in this memo and the accompanying statements in the press may give them enough reason to stay silent.