The art of selective public information

Column by Bill Christopher
Posted 9/23/20

What exactly is “the art of selective public information?” It’s a phrase that I have coined after observing the City of Westminster’s so-called “public information” operations. As you …

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The art of selective public information


What exactly is “the art of selective public information?” It’s a phrase that I have coined after observing the City of Westminster’s so-called “public information” operations. As you will recall, City Manager Don Tripp sought and got approval from city council in July 2019 of a non-budgeted $1.9 million annual expenditure to do three key things. He told city council that if he was allowed to hire 13 more full-time positions, he could (1) increase the organization’s productivity, (2) become innovative in delivery of services and products and (3) improve communications both internally and externally.

Regarding the last goal, we have seen the city manager and council members do video snippets about COVID-19, the water rate issue and other municipal topics. Plus, we have been receiving printed material with our monthly water bill, special mailings about COVID-19 and other “marketing” pieces. I say “marketing pieces” because so often, these communiques are promoting or embellishing what the city is doing rather than providing “straight up” news, facts and information. They tend to boast about how well they are doing in providing what they deem to be excellent service. Some of their website communiques are a good example, or in some cases, they simply ignore sending any information on topics that make the city look bad.

City fails to report recall

Let me use the latest situation involving the city where the city staff of “trained, professional communication experts” simply chose to ignore an important situation. On Aug.31, a group of upset and frustrated citizens filed affidavits with the city clerk’s office to circulate petitions to recall Mayor Atchison and city councilmembers Seitz, Skulley and Voelz. In last week’s column, I explained the reason why, the process, timeline and who was targeted.

Obviously, city staff knew about the filing of the affidavits on Aug. 31 or the next day. As I write this column on Sept. 16 for the Sept. 23 editions, the city staff has not said a lick about the effort to recall a majority of the city council. That is over two weeks ago! All that is expected is to say that recall petitions have been started to recall the named elected officials and that “X” valid signatures are required by a date certain. Just provide the facts to INFORM the public.

Such action not to inform citizens is a dereliction of duty and is irresponsible conduct on staff’s part. Citizens have a right to know what is going on in their city. The city belongs to the people; not the city manager; not the mayor; not the city council and not the city staff. It’s ironic, to say the least, that with additional communication employees on board, the city chooses to be silent on selected important issues which it construes to work against the city’s public relations image.

Not accurately reflecting survey results

Another example to cite is the timing and content when any information was posted on the city’s website about the 2020 Citizens’ (Community) Survey results. If you read my columns about this topic, you know that the results were eye-opening, to say the least, reflecting dissatisfaction with “the next Urban Center in Colorado” (high-density New Downtown), water rates, high-density apartment developments at various locations, increased traffic congestion and more.

Even services which still received positive rankings were down 8%-10% from the last survey conducted in 2018. The survey results reflect the reduced level of trust and growing dissatisfaction which a portion of the survey takers felt. Ultimately, the city staff posted what amounted to a weak rebuttal on the city website that cherry-picked a few minor positive results and distinguished responses among citizens residing in the different school districts and residents in single family versus attached dwelling units. Their information failed to overcome the real meaning of the survey results although they tried to deflect the negativity.

Timely and forthright information

The Westminster city government exists for one reason and that is to serve the people. Government is charged with providing health, safety and welfare services to the public, or to put it another way, to provide basic services including law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical assistance, transportation (i.e. streets and interchanges), water and sewer services, and parks, recreation and libraries. However, Westminster’s city government is acting more and more like a political machine to serve the interests of the city manager, the mayor and some members of city council. It’s past time to recalibrate the communications effort at city hall. Let’s remember that information is power. Key information about the city government, whether it is positive or negative, should be shared with the public in a timely, forthright way.

Trump official accuses CDC of sedition

Speaking of skewing information, there is a real recent example at the federal level which made me do a double-take when reading this federal official’s quotes. Michael Caputo was hired by the Trump administration in April 2020 as Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. He is the top communications official at the powerful Cabinet department in charge of combating the coronavirus. (So far, he sounds credible, right?). Well, catch some of this conspiracy theory chatter remembering Mr. Caputo is in charge of a $250 million public service advertising campaign intended to help America get back to normal. He accused career government scientists two Sundays ago of “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and warned that “left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.” This is a serious accusation, as sedition means conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a government. Two days later, he retracted the sedition accusation and apologized. The rest of his conduct and statements as described remains to be judged.

Manipulating data to serve a purpose

Without any shred of evidence, he went on to state that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was harboring a “resistance unit” determined to undermine President Trump. Caputo delivered his broadside against scientists, the media and Democrats after a spate of news reports over the weekend that detailed his team’s systematic interference in the C.D.C.’s official reports on the pandemic. Former and current CDC officials described how Mr. Caputo and a top aide “routinely demanded the agency to revise, delay and even scuttle the CDC’s core public health updates, called Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, that they believed undercut Mr. Trump’s message that the pandemic is under control.” The clincher for me regarding Caputo’s eccentric behavior was this quote, “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration (January 2021), the shooting will begin. The drills that you’ve seen are nothing. If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.” Whew!!!

Antics worse than ever before

I mention this situation simply to point out that government cover-up or “spinning the facts” or simply refusing to publicly state the facts at various governmental levels is worse than ever before. The Trump Administration is trying to manipulate CDC data that has been considered “the holiest of the holy” for their international respect and importance. Traditionally, these reports have been “so shielded from political interference that political appointees see them only just before they are published.” Well, that isn’t the case any longer. The White House has changed having hospitals report COVID-19 data to the CDC. Now they report to the Department of Health and Human Services. There had to be a reason to do so and it certainly isn’t beneficial to the American public. Like the Trump Administration withholding or manipulating information, so goes the leadership at Westminster city government.


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