Drop the flacks

In preparing coverage of Donald Trump’s proposal that local police be used to enforce federal immigration and other laws, an RN&R staffer sent messages out to some public officials, including several members of the county commission (four) and the Reno City Council (three). Sparks was added later. We asked each of them whether they felt the local decision should be left solely to the police agencies or whether the government boards should be included. We often send out these requests for the views of a range of officials and then—depending on the answers—sometimes conduct follow-up interviews.

This time, however, we got something we neither asked for nor wanted. It was this joint statement, from county publicist Chris Chiarlo: “If there is a decision to be made at the local level, we would expect the elected Washoe County sheriff and the Board of County Commissioners to be involved in the decision process.”

The first question that jumped to mind was, who is we?

Our messages to the elected officials sought individual reactions, not joint opinions. We sent a follow-up inquiry and Chiarlo replied as follows: “We were trying to be cohesive in our response since the question was sent to all five commissioners.”

So “we” is the county commission. But our inquiry did not go to all the commissioners, and we did not want a “cohesive” response. We wanted individual views.

We are at a loss to understand how commissioners could arrive at such a policy stance in the absence of a publicly posted agenda and a chance for the public to comment. Members of a public body are not supposed to reach a consensus that way. We considered filing an open meeting complaint, but the current attorney general has not filled us with confidence on open meetings.

There are a couple of issues here. One is the open meeting problem. The other is the growth of public relations people like Ciarlo in local government.

We have said before that flacks in government—PIOs, publicists, whatever they are called—have gotten way out of hand in Nevada. This is a small state with a lot of small governments. The governor may need a press secretary. Very few others do. Nevada Supreme Court justices, mayors, the chair of the Gaming Commission, the state budget director—all of them should be dealing directly with the public. One of our colleagues once said he knows how to pry information from government—it’s the public that needs an open meeting law. And it works both ways—elected officials, department heads, agency staffers badly need to be kept in touch with the public.

Plus, flacks don’t actually know anything. Rather, the actual experts tell them what to tell the public and press. Like any game of telephone, information starts going wrong as soon as that extra generation is in the mix.

Instead of slashing mental health services, the governor should get rid of a mess of flacks. And in the few places where they are needed—large agencies like the university or Department of Motor Vehicles—their function should not be to shield officialdom. It is to put the public in touch with the right people and then get out of the way. Instead, public officials tend to use them to keep members of the public at a distance from their governments.