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Don't put gag on fire commissioners

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

Some folks over at the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District apparently don't like the way they have been portrayed in the press lately. That's understandable, considering that most of the headlines about the fire commission have been necessarily negative, revolving around such unflattering issues as criminal investigations, immoral behavior, sexism and conflicts of interest.

Even the most skilled public relations doctor would be overwhelmed trying to put a positive spin on those troublesome topics.

But that's not stopping fire commission Chairman Jeff Hollander from trying. At a meeting last week, Hollander suggested the board adopt a policy that would ensure "consistent" information is disseminated to the media. That could be accomplished by either designating a spokesperson for the board or by holding news conferences after meetings where all the commissioners could hear reporters' questions and the ensuing responses.

It sounds like Hollander's intent is to limit access to the commissioners by giving them an excuse to not answer questions privately and to make it easier to control the response when the questions are posed in public.

It is astute of Hollander to recognize the need to improve relations with the media and hence the public. But this idea misses the mark.

From a practical standpoint, dispensing information at a news conference just twice each month isn't workable. What happens when news occurs in the interim? What happens if a reporter doesn't think to ask a question until a day or two after the news conference, or new information surfaces and requires follow-up questions?

And what reporter worth her salt is going to ask all her most probing questions in a news conference, tipping her competitors to the exclusive stories she's working on?

A bigger concern is that Hollander's suggestion is an affront to free speech because it muzzles any commissioner who might want to privately express an opinion about the operation of the fire district or his colleagues on the board.

Putting a gag on commissioners is bad enough, but my strongest objection to Hollander's idea is that it attempts to stifle the public by insulating commissioners from their constituents.

Never mind that I happen to be a journalist and editorialist. The mere fact that I pay taxes to the fire district gives me the right to ask any commissioner what I want, when I want and as often as I want, as long as it relates to how they're performing their public duties.

What's more, when asked, they're obliged to respond. That's the contract they signed the day they were granted the privilege of public office.

Any commissioner who seeks to circumvent that responsibility, whether it's by being inaccessible or indifferent, doesn't deserve the public's trust and voters should seize the earliest opportunity to oust him.

Each commissioner is accountable to the public. They may only have power when acting as a single entity, but the people who have honored them by putting them in office have every right to question how and why they make their decisions.

The media gladly acts on behalf of the public by asking elected officials for those explanations. It's a symbiotic relationship that has worked very well for a very long time.

There are plenty of ways for the fire commissioners to create more favorable headlines. They can start by remembering they are public servants first, and that the district they are overseeing doesn't belong to them. It belongs to the people whose hard-earned money they are spending, and who rely on them to put out fires and save lives.

A little more of that thinking, and this pesky public relations problem will take care of itself.

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