It's a bad idea when government gets into the journalism business. It's a worse idea when government gets into the censorship business.
But one inevitably leads to the other. Government can't help itself. It's naturally reluctant to publish any news that puts its leaders in a bad light.
So the lesson is: Don't start publishing news in the first place.
That lesson is played out today in Kevin McCallum's online story about the city of Santa Rosa's refusal to publish the latest newsletter of the West End Neighborhood Association. It seems that when an assistant city manager noticed a story about the City Council's controversial decision to allow an asphalt plant to expand operations in the neighborhood, she pulled the plug on the printing job.
According to McCallum's story: "…the November edition of the four-page newsletter contained a blurb that raised a red flag for city officials. A short item entitled &‘Santa Rosa City Council Sides with BoDean Asphalt Plant' noted that the council on Nov. 6 overruled the Design Review Board's rejection of BoDean's plans to build three 82-foot-high storage silos on the Maxwell Drive property."
"The item named the four council members who voted to approve the $1.5 million project over the objections of some neighbors: Mayor Ernesto Olivares, Vice Mayor John Sawyer, Scott Bartley and Jake Ours."
Attributing the decision to campaign finance laws that prohibit the city from paying for "mailings" that reference city officials, Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips decided the city shouldn't pay to print the newsletter. The neighborhood group instead covered the $120 cost of printing 650 copies.
So, what's the big deal? Well, for starters, this is the definition of "government censorship." The city has been paying the printing costs for this and other neighborhood newsletters for about 10 years. It has never objected to newsletter stories that mentioned City Council members who attended neighborhood events. But when this newsletter mentioned the names of City Council members involved in a contentious vote – a vote that by the way has prompted a suit against the city by members of the West End Neighborhood Association – the mention of those names became an issue so large that city officials refused to finance the publication.
But there's another issue at play here, too. Why is the city in the business of publishing neighborhood newsletters? And why are neighborhood associations – which often find themselves at odds with various members of the City Council – relying on the city to pay for distributing their news?
It's a relationship fraught with potential conflicts of interest, and it's surprising that this is the first time city officials have found a reason not to publish one of these newsletters.
And, while it's not a large amount of money, why is the city spending anything at all to print newsletters? I hate to say this, given my profession, but printed newsletters are an anachronism in today's digital world. Printing newsletters to be mailed to neighborhood residents is a questionable use of resources at a time when government is looking for ways to pinch pennies and society is looking for ways to reduce waste.
My unsolicited advice to neighborhood groups: Turn your newsletters into digital publications. If you have residents who can't access it online, print them out a copy and walk it over to their house. It will only cost you pennies and you'll be able to say anything you want about city leaders – good or bad.