Our Opinion: Watchdogs vital for democracy
It's now been more than two weeks since Portland city Commissioner Chloe Eudaly kicked off a social media kerfuffle that was both disheartening and illuminating.
For those who missed the dust-up, here's a recap:
On the evening of Nov. 10, the Friday before Veterans Day, Oregonlive posted a story about the Bureau of Development Services by Jessica Floum, The Oregonian's City Hall reporter.
Upset by "blatant misinformation" in the story, Eudaly — who oversees the bureau — took to her personal Facebook page to complain that Floum had waited until "after 5 p.m." on the eve of a holiday weekend to contact her and opined that the reporter, a Northwestern University graduate, is "not sharp enough to be covering City Hall." She ended her post by saying, "... then again, The Oregonian is irrelevant, so who cares I guess."
Local freelance writer Mike Bivins, one of several journalists who'd friended Eudaly on Facebook, thought the personal attack was interesting enough to share, so he took a screen shot and tweeted it out, along with previous posts from Eudaly criticizing journalists from Willamette Week, OPB and, eventually, Bivins himself.
Eudaly cried foul, unfriended Bivins and argued that items on her personal page should be treated as private communication.
That debate over privacy and the press played out last week on social media as well as the print and digital editions of several publications, including the Portland Tribune. Along the way we learned that, indeed, Floum's original online story included minor errors that were quickly noted and corrected.
But Eudaly's claim that Floum waited until 5 p.m. to contact the commissioner's office was proven false by a text message exchange with Floum earlier in the day that showed Eudaly was aware of her request for more information long before the end of business. Unlike Floum, however, Eudaly failed to publicly admit her mistake.
Largely lost in heated discussion was a larger issue directly related to the story that touched off the debate. Eudaly is reorganizing a six-person communications team at the Bureau of Development Services and adding three people, with an expanded budget of $810,000 a year.
Some of the positions are designed to improve relations with developers, who have long complained that it's tough to get information out of the bureau. Others, according to Eudaly's staff, will improve internal communications. But at least a portion of the budget will allow Eudaly to generate her own news about what the bureau is doing.
As Portland Tribune reporter Shasta Kearns Moore notes in a story published today, that move is part of a trend. As newsrooms have shrunk over the past decade, public agencies have increasingly beefed up their public relations staffs and become more aggressive about using social media to create their own news coverage.
In many cases, those employees are disseminating important public information that was once part of news coverage of government. But they are not a substitute for an independent, professional press.
Floum's article noted that the city's own budget office, in a public document, questioned Eudaly's spending, when it wrote: "The continued enlargement of the communications team lacks the service level urgency of the other staffing needs."
We understand that elected officials are annoyed when a colleague or another government agency raises concerns about their pet projects.
And it's even more annoying when journalists or members of the public seize on that conflict.
But that's part of the important "checks and balances" needed in a healthy democratic process.
In an era when members of the public get information from a variety of sources — including direct communications from elected officials — it's important that traditional watchdogs be encouraged, not muzzled. The press and public, along with independent budget offices, auditors and ombudsmen, must continue to examine and question what elected officials are doing. That's essential, not irrelevant.
It's telling that neither Eudaly nor her PR team felt the budget office's critical assessment of her plans, as noted in the Oregonian story, was worth sharing in a press release or Facebook post. But it's information that taxpayers need to know.
If Eudaly wants better press about the Bureau of Development Services, she should make good on her promise to streamline the permit process and let the work speak for itself.
If the success doesn't get the attention she thinks it deserves, there's nothing wrong with contacting a reporter and having a chat. But that only works if she can find one still willing to take her call.