To listen to Mayor Steve Leary and Commissioner Sara Sprinkel in their recent “coffee meeting,” you’d think the biggest problem facing Winter Park is citizens exercising their right to free speech.
First, there are those appointed Advisory Board members who dare answer a reporter’s questions about a public issue without first clearing it with city staff. The nerve!
Then there are those annoying residents who show up in force at City Commission meetings to oppose an item on the agenda. What political opportunists!
Life is hard in a democracy.
People are free to express their opinions no matter what the Mayor, a City Commissioner or anyone at City Hall says. No matter how brilliant the Mayor and Commissioners think their ideas are, they can’t force everyone to be quiet and follow their lead.
Darn that First Amendment!
In his one-on-one meetings with commissioners, Mr. Leary complained about citizens who oppose major changes in the city. They try to take political advantage of every discussion, he said at one point, dropping his voice as if he were voicing an opinion no one knew he had. He needn’t have bothered. It’s clear, listening to his taped meetings, that Leary doesn’t believe honest people can disagree on any issue.
Managing the Message
In their chat, he and Ms. Sprinkel talked at length about creative ways to Manage the Message, presumably to avoid stirring up those activists.
Advisory Board members need direction from the City before speaking to the press, they agreed. They’re like a company’s employees, said Mr. Leary, who expects his employees to walk the company line when talking to the press.
The mind reels trying to follow his logic. Of course private employees would let a boss know about media inquiries. Private businesses exist to make a profit, to serve their owners. Mr. Leary’s commercial property company might not make much profit if rogue employees publicly revealed or debated his strategies.
Advisory Board Members Are Not Employees
But – and this apparently needs to be said – government is not private enterprise. It doesn’t exist to make a profit. It exists to serve its citizens, who are poorly served when the truth is managed and everyone involved wields a rubber stamp. Robust public discussion doesn’t hinder government decision-making, it improves it.
Furthermore, Winter Park’s Advisory Board members aren’t employees. They are appointed to “advise” the Commission based upon their individual expertise and experience, not to serve as an echo chamber.
Should Board Members be Trained to Talk to the Media?
In Ms. Sprinkel’s perfect world, she would know what board members planned to tell reporters before she read about it in the news. Mrs. Sprinkel is a big fan of everyone holding hands and singing the same tune. Her comments are reminiscent of her past annoyance with fellow Commissioner Carolyn Cooper, who at times publicly disagreed with a majority of the Commissioners – sometimes in print!
“Not Trying to Limit First Amendment Rights”
Ms. Sprinkel agreed with Mr. Leary that newly appointed board members need to be trained to check first with the City’s Communications Department to know how to speak to the media and what to say. Even though Mr. Leary insisted, “We’re not trying to limit their First Amendment rights,” what Leary and Sprinkel were suggesting sounds like something dangerously close to prior restraint — a gag order where Advisory Board members would have to run their thoughts past a person trained in public relations before they could go live.
A government body that feeds all information through a public relations funnel isn’t serving its citizens. It’s giving them only the facts it deems worthy to disclose. It’s an attempt to trick citizens into believing everyone involved is singing from the same page in the song book – and they seem to think no one will notice they’re singing off key.
Editori’s Note: Geri Throne was a staff writer for the Orlando Sentinel specializing in local government issues. In the 1980s she served as Winter Park bureau chief. She subsequently served as assistant city editor, deputy business editor and member of the Editorial Board before her retirement in 2003. A series of her editorials won a national award for educational reporting from the Education Writers Association in 2003.
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