Ullman: Still no comment


Though Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman has talked a lot about open government, her responsiveness to reporters during her campaign and even after her victory in November does not exactly jive with openess.

Ullman said in last year's Idaho Statesman voter guide that she thinks using tax dollars to pay for PR staff is wasteful because, "Elected officials should speak for themselves." So I was surprised to confirm this morning that her personal media policy is "no comment." Ever. Period.

Ullman has her own blog now, and a post she did on an Allied Waste garbage hauling contract entitled, "It's a stinky problem," caught my eye. The contract was about to expire, and Ullman wanted to put it out for bid. It sounds like routine business, but for Ullman and a handful of her readers who are angry about the county's current trash service, it's a big deal.

The problem? "According to the Landfill Director and the trash hauler’s representatives, if we do put the contract out for bid, they say that rates will increase more than they will if we simply extend the contract for another ten years," Ullman wrote. "To me, this sounds like extortion: give it to us, or we’ll jack up your prices."

I called Ullman and left her a message, asking if they had decided anything about the contract yet. Ada County spokesman Rich Wright returned my call and told me that Commissioner Ullman doesn't talk to the media and would only interact with me by using him as an intermediary.

BW touched on Ullman's new media strategy last December, but I interpreted her comments to mean that she wouldn't run to the press with disagreements she had with her fellow commissioners. That's a far cry from refusing to talk to the media altogether.

This isn't Ada County's media policy, Wright hastened to add. If I liked, he could set up an interview for me with Commissioners Fred Tilman or Rick Yzaguirre. Commissioner Ullman believes media should show up to public meetings and hear what she has to say there, Wright said. I pointed out to him that I didn't think that gave reporters any opportunity to ask questions. He said I should consider showing up for a meeting and try to ask her about that.

So I did. Today the Ada County Commissioners had a business meeting, and one detail of the Allied Waste contract was on the agenda. I showed up to hear what they had to say. The issue was tabled for two weeks until the Commission decides whether to put the contract up for bid or not. During a brief recess, I got up to talk to her, hoping to ask her why she felt so strongly about the contract and whether she'd ever received a satisfactory answer as to why it would cost more to put the contract up for bid.

But Ullman left the room before I could say a word to her. When she got back, I asked her if I could speak to her for a moment. She said no, informing me that the meeting was about to start again. The meeting started and the commissioners went into executive session, so I had to leave. I asked if I could talk to them afterward, and Tilman said I should talk to Wright. I went to Wright's office and asked if he could arrange for me to talk to Ullman after the executive session was over. He took in a note to her, then came back to inform me that she had respectfully denied my request.

"Commissioner Ullman is very adamant about not doing one-on-one media interviews," Wright told me. He reiterated that it was her decision and that he had no say in it.

"So how does this work?" I asked him. "Do I ask you questions, and you relay them on to her?" 

Wright said he didn't know. I was the first reporter to end up in this situation since the election. But he was happy to pass my questions on to her. I told him my questions about the Allied Waste contract, and also asked him to ask her how she reconciles her media policy with her view that elected officials should speak for themselves.

This afternoon, Wright e-mailed me:
"Great talking with you this morning. I forwarded your questions to Commissioner Ullman and she said she didn’t intend to provide any further comment until the Board took action on the Allied contract. She mentioned something about posting a new entry to her blog… Maybe check that out to see if she provides any new insight there???? That’s the best I can do at this point. I’ll keep you posted as things develop with the Allied contract. If you’d like more sit-down time with one of the other Commissioners I can help arrange that."
It's great that Commissioner Ullman blogs so she can communicate directly with constituents. But I doubt her blog has enough readership for her to inform the whole community about what's going on in the Ada County Commission. Citizens have a right to know what their government representatives are doing, and a lot of Ada County residents depend on traditional media to stay informed about local government.

So it seems strange for someone who bills herself as a champion of open government to steadfastly refuse to take questions from the press.