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Spokesmen as shields

Spokesmen have their role in a sprawling bureaucracy like City Hall or the Buffalo Police Department.

They can be traffic cops, pointing reporters in the right direction, scheduling interviews, running down documents. In other words, facilitators.

Sometimes, they speak for the boss, at least on mundane topics. Fair enough.

The current crew running city government is using its spokesmen for an additional purpose: to shield them from tough questions from the press.

Witness Wednesday's interaction between Mayor Brown and Brian Meyer, our City Hall reporter. Meyer asked the mayor about the police department's decision to strip crime incident reports of basic information. Brown refused to comment.

"Every organization has a spokesman, and ours is Mike DeGeorge," the mayor said.

Gee, I didn't know the buck stopped at Mike DeGeorge's desk.

(Update: Several hours after this post went live, Brown ordered the department to stop deleting key information from crime reports. So he stepped up. Here's a link to story.)

Brown usually deflects question to Peter Cutler, his press guy. Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson has his own flack, DeGeorge. School Superintendent James Williams has Stefan Mychajliw and used him to do most of the talking during the McKinley High School fiasco.

Between them, these spokesmen cost taxpayers over $200,000 a year in salaries, plus benefits. DeGeorge drives a city-issued car, as well. Not that you find him traveling to crime scenes much anymore and answering questions from newspaper and TV reporters on the scene.

What ever happened to the notion of decision makers answering questions about their actions?

Many inside and outside City Hall say that idea runs counter to the culture that's taken root since Brown took office two years ago.

Late last year The News surveyed hundreds of community, business and political leaders about Brown's first two years in office. On balance, they gave him middling grades. Good on some stuff, like being smart, hardworking and even-tempered. Not so good on other fronts; a major beef was that he's too concerned with image, too isolated, too aloof.

One community leader described Brown as "isolated, insular." Another described the mayor  as "very thin-skinned [with] a need to look good all the time."

More recently, Aaron Bartley, a Harvard-educated lawyer and West Side housing activist, spoke of what he termed the administration's "clinical paranoia."

Bartley and others believe there's a big resistance to dealing with those outside the bubble the mayor and his senior staff have built around themselves. It's not just Bartley. I've heard it from block club leaders, business leaders, etc.

The activists who pushed the city to enforce its living wage law told me they couldn't get an audience with the mayor until they put up a tent city outside City Hall in September 2007 and vowed not to leave until he met with them. He finally relented after an overnight campout, and ensuing press coverage, but wouldn't let them into his office. Instead, they spoke in the hallway outside his office.

"This sort of closed-door policy, control approach is an impediment to progress," said Allison Duwe, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, one of those who met with the mayor.



Local Government
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