Sharon Ullman and the Media, Part III

Posted by Lora Volkert on Thu, Feb 19, 2009 at 12:02 PM

As we reported here, Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman -- despite her open government stance -- doesn't have the most media-friendly policies in the world. But she has clarified her media policies since our first post. She said that she'll interact with the media in the following ways:
  • She'll do live, unedited TV and radio interviews, and long-form programs like Viewpoint. That, of course, leaves Boise Weekly and all other newspapers, as well as a large percentage of TV and radio programs, out in the cold.

  • She'll answer questions left on her blog. It's not a bad option -- if you're not worried about getting scooped.

  • She'll answer questions on the record at public meetings.

I was surprised by the last one. I've sat in on a lot of public meetings, and reporters asking questions was always discouraged. So I decided to give it a try. I went to a budget meeting the commissioners were holding today, hoping to get a chance to ask a question near the end.

As the commissioners were wrapping up the segment on the budget, Commissioner Ullman spoke up. "I'd like to point out that we have a reporter in the room, and I wondered if she has any questions?" she asked.

"This is not a public hearing," Commission Chairman Fred Tilman said.

A public hearing, according to Ada County spokesman Rich Wright, is the only type of commission meeting where the public can testify. I was at a public meeting, which just means the public can sit in and listen. Until I got there, I wasn't too clear on which type of meeting the budget meeting was since the agendas posted online aren't labeled "hearing" or "meeting."

Commissioner Ullman persisted and persuaded Commissioner Tilman to at least hear what my question was regarding. (She was really quite nice about it.) When I told him the topic, he said, "We're not discussing that today."

"Will you be discussing it on Tuesday?" I asked, believing Tuesday to be the date of one of the next public hearings.

"Check the agenda," he said. As of this writing, the agendas for next week have not been posted yet.

Chairman Tilman is willing to do interviews with the media outside of meetings, according to Rich Wright. But during meetings, Wright explained, it's his prerogative to not allow reporters to ask questions unless it's a hearing, and to ensure that only questions regarding the topic at hand are asked and answered. Commissioner Ullman, meanwhile, won't talk to newspaper reporters unless it's at a public hearing, or on her blog. Between these two policies, if you want to ask Ullman something and you don't want to run the risk of news competitors seeing your questions and answers on her blog and scooping you, you have to hope for a public hearing where the commission will be talking about what you want to ask about.

It's kind of a limiting format, and there are a whole range of news topics that might never see the light of day if they aren't on the commissioners' agenda.

But points for effort, Commissioner Ullman. Points for effort.


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