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Logan mayor’s new media policy muddies public’s view of city government, experts say

January 31st, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Cody Littlewood

LOGAN–Mayor Randy Watt’s new policy, enacted Jan. 20, regarding media inquiries has sparked a lot of discussion about the role of transparency in government. Media professionals in Northern Utah are criticizing the decision saying that it is “suspect” and makes it harder for the public to have honesty from their government.

The new policy Watts put into place requires that any media inquiries be submitted in writing to the city official “when appropriate,” and “when appropriate” the city will respond verbally. The policy is not written down and has no specific parameters as of this time.

Watts said “when appropriate” means when the information is more detailed, when there is more than one person involved, when the information requests budget information, or documents need to be gathered in order to answer the questions. However, Watts did not clarify when it was appropriate to interview the city verbally.

“We want to make sure that the information going out to the public is correct and that all appropriate personnel have the opportunity to address the questions,” Watts said.

However, the Logan Herald Journal indicated that the policy looks like a reaction to recent Herald Journal articles that the mayor was displeased with.

A policy that would make the procedure for media inquiries more difficult and less timely yearns to be asked whether or not this is government trying to avoid transparency. “If the motivation is to retaliate or punish the news agency, that’s when First Amendment issues come into play,” Jeff Hunt, a media law attorney said.

“It really inhibits the free flow of information to the public.” With this new policy in place they can govern the way they collect questions from the media, Hunt said. At a time when Salt Lake City and other cities are working towards more transparency and accountability in their government Logan is going the other direction.

Penny Byrne, associate professor of journalism at Utah State University, said the policy is not illegal.

“The courts have said that an official is well within their rights to not speak with any specific media outlet,” Byrne said, but it still raises all sorts of First Amendment ethical issues.

“I think it is suspect in a lot of ways,” Byrne said. Of the many reasons, this is not true transparency in government is that it’s hard to tell if the real person is responding or whether it is a receptionist typing pre-written responses.

Watts said that this policy is only on a trial basis and may be changed as time goes on. The discussion over the new policy was done in an closed, executive committee made up of department heads and the mayor, he said.

Hunt said that this type of discussion should be held in a public meeting. “That’s the kind of discussion that should take place in the open. Its of great public interest.”

No legal action has been filed against the city, but Hunt said that Alison Hess, a professor at Weber State University, will be holding a protest in the near future. Hess was unavailable for comment.


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