CERRITOS — Holes have been drilled in the fortifications separating the press from City Hall staff.
After much talk about the need for public access and openness, the City Council last week voted to relax a longstanding policy prohibiting city staff members from dealing directly with reporters. Department heads, the city manager and the assistant manager are now allowed to speak to the press, although other staff workers will remain off limits to reporters.
For 15 years Cerritos has channeled all press inquiries through its public information office. Only after obtaining permission from the press officer could a reporter talk to a city worker about a story. Most often, the information officer obtained answers to press questions from the staff and then relayed them to reporters.
Policy Called Inefficient
In raising the issue, Councilwoman Diana Needham complained that the policy created problems for the press, was inefficient and ultimately limited the public's ability to find out what was going on in the city.
Councilwoman Ann Joynt agreed: "The reality is, why shouldn't a reporter have access to a department head?"
Defending the old system, Councilman Barry Rabbitt said he had never heard complaints about it, adding that the policy seemed to be working well. He suggested that technical and legal matters could be best handled by the city press officer.
Although Mayor Daniel Wong said he favored opening up the telephone lines to city personnel, he said he would prefer that press questions be limited to technical issues. Otherwise, he commented, the staff might tell reporters things the council was unaware of.
Approved on 5-0 Vote
Councilman Donald Knabe supported the change, and in the end, the council approved Needham's motion, 5 to 0, allowing key city staff members to answer press calls. Later, Rabbitt said, "I don't have any problems with any of our people talking to the media."
The policy of restricted access was adopted under City Manager Gaylord Knapp, who said in an interview that it was created to save time for both reporters and city administrators. He bristled at community activist Chris Fuentes' suggestion--made during the council's discussion--that the old system had produced "controlled, packaged statements."
Knapp added that he had no objections to the new media policy. "We will make it work."