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Council, will you stifle yourself?

By Staff | Mar 3, 2022

The city of Cape Coral’s reaction to the semi-timely release of information that permit delays at the state and federal level will hold up its multi-million renovation to the Cape Coral Yacht Club?

A proposed directive: Council members, stifle yourself.

Mayor John Gunter outlined some policy changes he would like to see this week after one member of the elected board answered questions from the news media, including The Breeze, concerning the matter which had not yet been shared publicly by city staff or council itself.

For two weeks.

With city timing set for a week later yet so this poo-package could be wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a bow for proper presentation.

Mayor Gunter proffered a solution to better keep public information zealots like interviewee Councilmember Tom Hayden in check: A council media policy that would 1) ask reporters to direct all requests for comment from any member of Council to the city’s Communications Office, with which Council should be working “side by side”; 2) that only city staffers within the Communications Office be the ones to “reach out” directly to a council member; 3) that communications staff could then attend any interview with a reporter and would provide council members to be interviewed with “talking points from communications to see what the city’s perspective is on that particular topic.”

It gets better, at least from a control-the-message standpoint.

Since council members “don’t serve as individuals,” (despite the whole campaign/elections thing), but as a “collective body,” any statement provided to a reporter by an elected official “should be as a body, not as an individual.” As explained, this means that should any council member decide to provide comment, they must do so not as a council member, but as a citizen, clarifying this each time they answer a question on a public issue.

There’s more.

What Council really should have is a single point person — such as the mayor himself — to represent the elected board when reporters call.

If the issue concerns a matter within a particular council district, a provision for exception remains a talking point.

The district’s council member could, perhaps, answer questions on those issues but should not do so without going through the process as a different council member or the point person might more appropriately address the inquiry. With “appropriate,” we suspect, being the someone who would best lip-sync the “consistent message” the city is shoveling into the box.

Well, then.

First, we agree that speaking a consistent message with one voice is fine and understandable — for private businesses and even public agencies with non-elected staffers.

But it is anathema to a representative form of government where public policy must evolve from discussion and debate into compromise and consensus.

It also leads to some questions.

How, exactly, is Council to come to its “consistent message” while issues of public import are in the discussion phase and they cannot, by law, come to any behind-the-scenes, pre-vote consensus?

How would impeding a council member’s ability to inform the public how and when they deem fit foster the transparency Council often touts?

And how does Council propose to enforce a policy that not only lacks teeth but flies in the face of free speech rights its members do not abrogate upon election to office?

As the Poynter Institute summarized from a 2019 Brechner Center for Freedom of Information analysis of court decisions, such policies are unenforceable. The center documented at least 20 cases where courts invalidated policies that impinge even public employees’ right to “talk to the press” and found further that “no agency has ever prevailed — from the 1940s to present day — when a policy forbidding unauthorized interviews was challenged as a First Amendment violation.”

In reality, these edicts, as common as they may be, rely on essentially voluntary compliance by members of the media — over which government entities, despite their ongoing and best efforts — have no control, and those within their reach, whom they attempt to control.

Do we have some self-interest here?

We do.

But so do you.

It is your right-to-know that is at stake here. Your right to have information and have it on a timely basis.

Your right to hear it from the people who have asked for your trust along with your vote.

Will the message always be pretty, professionally packaged and, ahem, uniform?

The mayor and city manager are correct: Probably not.

But it will come from the scant handful of people who are directly accountable to you.

That’s not city staff.

That’s the people whom we elect.

Mayor Gunter’s proposed directive is also a question so let us ask it here:

Council, will you stifle yourself?

— Breeze editorial