Last night, the Fort Wayne City Council voted to cut one of two Public Information Officer (PIO) positions from the Mayor’s budget. You may remember whenÂ earlier in the year there were three PIOs – Rachel Blakeman, Ozzie Mitson and RachelÂ Rebecca Karcher. Â This was the only personnel cut made. Â After this cut was approved (by a 5-4 vote), the council was looking at a position in its own office, that of a 16-hour per week research assistant. Councilwoman Karen Goldner made the point that the council has been wanting the various department heads to submit evaluations of their staff to determine which positions might be made redundant. It was felt that without this information, further staff cuts could not be made. And yet, no efforts were made to go back and look at applying this same thought to the cut PIO position.
Cutting the PIO position – and no other personnel – makes it feel like a retaliatory action against the Administration for turning in a flat budget and putting the responsibility to make cuts in the budget with the council – the very council that has demanded and criticized (justly or unjustly depending on your view) the flat budget. Â The vote was 5 yes and 4 no to cut the position.
It was pointed out that quite a few of the various city departments have PIOs. Fire, Police, City Utilities were named. This is true, but the nature of Fire and Police are such that having their own PIOs make sense. City Utilities I think is questionable. I don’t know who this PIO is and quite frankly don’t ever remember seeing them, if they exist.
Councilman Mitch Harper pointed out that a memo had been given to department heads from the Administration ordering them not to have contact with the media, but rather refer them to the PIOs. While this makes sense on some levels, as Mitch pointed out, department heads are knowledgeable and professional enough they should be able to speak for their departments.
But stepping back and looking at things as a whole, our local government is so vast that at times, having a person who has an idea of what’s going on within the entity as a whole can be insightful and very useful. The Mayor cannot be everywhere at once. He cannot ensure the openness and transparency that is needed with local government and that several council members support and tout as their core belief. He needs assistance and this comes in the form of a PIO.
Is one PIO enough? I don’t think so. I remember my early frustrating attempts, when I first began getting involved with our local government, to obtain information. There was not one clear single person to go to – it was more hit and miss and mostly because of the time limitations faced by one PIO trying to do the work of two people. I don’t wish to see the City go back to this time period – it would definitely be a step backwards in regards to open government.
I must say that I feel personally vested in this. The PIO in question is Rachel Blakeman. Rachel has had a great impact in getting information out to the public. Whereas last year, under Mayor Richard you hardly ever saw John Perlich, PIO at that time, at meetings, Rachel, Ozzie Mitson when he was still a PIO and Rachel Karcher have had a presence at almost every government meeting I have attended this year. I have had several opportunities to interact with Rachel. She is a bright individual who frankly could be making more money in the private sector, but has chosen public service. She brings her inquisitive nature, fairness, integrity and open government beliefs to the table. I think the returns and impact of her service far outweigh the expense of her salary.
A City Government You Tube channel was started this year which is being used to cover events that do not always make news headlines, but are still important for citizens to be cognizant of. I do not know if Rachel was instrumental in putting this together, but she has done almost all the work on video taping and keeping it going.
A few months ago, I emailed Rachel about being placed on the email or distribution list for the Board of Public Works meeting agendas. They were nowhere to be found on the City’s website and yet this agency has the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of its citizens. Rachel promptly responded that while she had no problem with me being notified, she felt the better solution would be to have the agendas available on the website for everyone to access. This was started immediately and the following Tuesday, and almost every week since with the exception of one, this has occurred. It is this kind of quick response and eye toward the bigger picture that brings home the value of this position.
This cut could still be changed. There is one more (could be another, but highly doubtful at this point) budget hearing continuation scheduled – that of November 18th. If the Administration could come up with cuts in other areas totaling the $54,700 PIO cut, council could and should consider reversing their decision.