What happened to transparency?
Days into the job, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is ordering city department heads and other employees not to talk to the press — and therefore, the public — without clearing it with her office first.
The mayor, who campaigned on the promise of running an open administration, needs to retract this gag order immediately.
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 the mayor’s chief of staff or her spokeswoman.
The mayor’s aides insist that the policy won’t keep employees from talking to news reporters. “We’re just saying, ‘Before you do, would you give us a call in the Mayor’s Office?’ Just give us a buzz and let us know what you’re going to say,” said Marty Bilek, the chief of staff.
During her recent campaign, Stothert was sharply focused on her message to voters, as successful candidates always are.
But this is governing, and it’s different.
During her campaign, the mayor talked about the need to have professional managers in city government who will run their departments more efficiently. Adding a layer of red tape before those managers can comment publicly is hardly efficient.
The mayor and some of the department heads she has inherited from her predecessor may not see eye-to-eye on everything.
But these public officials don’t make the policy — the mayor and City Council handle that job — as much as carry it out. They are professionals in the areas they supervise. They are accountable to the public. And they are fully capable of talking to the public without having their remarks reviewed and approved first.
They should be able to tell Omahans how many potholes have been filled, how many speeding tickets were written, how often the parks are being mowed without getting permission from the head office.
And the mayor’s order appears awfully broad. Does this mean that the supervisor of swimming pools can’t comment on the heroics of a lifeguard without pre-clearance? Or that a city prosecutor can’t comment on the verdict in a drunk-driving case?
When something happens in their government, the citizens have a right to know about it promptly.
Requiring these public servants to get permission first is impractical and unnecessary.