'He [Berry] doesn’t call me back. It’s clear to everybody that Rob Perry is running the city and that all the mayor does is cut ribbons' Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
Mayor Richard Berry “is committed to transparency within city government,” according to the City of Albuquerque’s website. The mayor wanted to be seen as a leader of a national movement to bring more openness to government, he told The Economist magazine in November 2011, midway through his first term.
Lately, though, that commitment appeared to have waned – at least when it comes to answering questions from this newspaper.
Since May, Berry and his spokesperson have repeatedly failed, or refused, to answer questions from ABQ free Press on a wide range of public-policy issues, including the $100 million bus rapid transit project he wants to put on Central Avenue and the retention bonuses for 19 members of the Albuquerque Police Department’s command staff.
Most recently, the administration failed to answer questions about why the chief of the city’s Aviation Police department had been suspended. Berry himself refused to answer questions from the paper when it called his personal cell phone three times. Berry appeared to have hung up on the first call from the paper’s reporter, and he failed to return two messages the reporter left.
The job of communicating with the news media and getting reporters answers to their questions falls to Rhiannon Schroeder, Berry’s director of communications. But since May, Schroeder, who makes $33.43 an hour, or $69,534 a year, hasn’t answered a single question from among dozens posed by this newspaper. Nor has she arranged requested interviews with Berry or the city’s chief administrative officer, Rob Perry. Schroeder has failed to answer the paper’s questions even when the paper was directed by city department spokespeople to contact her.
For instance, the paper recently called the city’s Human Resources director, Mary Scott, to ask about issues regarding the potential loss of information from city employees’ personnel files. Scott told the paper that all such inquiries had to go through Schroeder. The paper emailed Schroeder a list of questions on the issue. Schroeder acknowledged receiving the email, but never answered the questions.
ABQ Free Press has emailed Schroeder questions on other issues, including Berry’s claim that police officers had gotten 12 percent in raises during his administration, and about the hefty raise he gave to CAO Perry. On Nov. 24, the paper emailedSchroeder to say it was preparing a story about her refusal to answer its questions. Schroeder did not respond to that email, either.
Is it just us?
Matthew Reichbach, editor of the New Mexico Political Report, an online news organization, said his reporters have different experiences with Schroeder when they ask her questions about the administration. “They are not great, but they are not the worst,” in terms of responding, Reichbach said. “We have gotten responses from them in the past, but if it’s any sort of negative story they don’t respond at all.”
City Councilor Diane Gibson, a Democrat, said she hears frequently from reporters at the city’s three major TV stations that they have had difficulty in getting their questions answered by this administration. Gibson said she has also been told that Berry himself is mostly not accessible to the media.
“I get at least one phone call or face-to-face comment a day from people about not being able to reach the mayor,” Gibson said. “Rhiannon makes $69,000 a year, and she can’t pick up the phone and call you back? The reason is she has nothing to say. She has not gotten anything from the mayor.”
Not every reporter or media organization is having trouble getting information out of Berry’s office. KOB-TV investigative reporter Chris Ramirez, who was Berry’s spokesman for two years before joining the station, said he usually has no problem getting the information he needs from the administration.
“Ninety-five percent of the time I get the information I need. It sometimes comes with a little bit of hostility or anger,” Ramirez said, adding that it was “pretty disturbing” to hear that Berry’s office wasn’t answering ABQ Free Press’ questions.
Another KOB reporter, Stuart Dyson, also said he gets needed information from the Mayor’s Office. “My relationship with the mayor and his administration are very open. I have not had these issues,” Dyson said, “but I have talked with colleagues who have had their difficulties. No one in any branch of the media should be singled out or excluded. It angers me if that is happening.”
Dyson added that he doesn’t ask the most difficult questions of Berry’s office. “I am a despicably superficial reporter,” he said.
Janet Blair, a former TV reporter who has held several government PR jobs and who spent six months last year as APD’s spokesperson, said she is seeing much more hostility from government officials toward reporters and news organizations than in the past.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the APD situation, and that has kind of spread over to City Hall,” Blair said. “I know there is great temptation by city leaders to not answer questions from journalists or organizations they perceive to be hostile. I’m not saying I agree with it, but that is what it appears to be.”
In the 1990s, Blair served as then-Mayor Martin Chavez’s spokesperson. She said she answered questions from all media outlets. “I was required to answer every question and provide information as completely as I could,” she said.
Her stint at APD gave Blair an insight into the fear and hostility that some government officials can have toward the media.
“When I was at APD, a lot of people there expressed the feeling that we should not talk to them [media] because they will screw it up and make us look bad,” Blair said. “It was very clear that the advice I was giving them was not what they wanted to hear.”
Calls to the Albuquerque Journal’s managing editor, Karen Moses, and KRQE-TV’s Iain Munro, were not returned by deadline.
Not just the media
While Berry, a Republican, often talks about bipartisanship and working cooperatively with councilors, Gibson said that’s not true, at least in her experience.
“He [Berry] doesn’t call me back. It’s clear to everybody that Rob Perry is running the city and that all the mayor does is cut ribbons. But as far as addressing city policy and making the city function, he really doesn’t have anything to do with that,” Gibson said.
More than a month ago, Gibson said she sent Berry a letter detailing her concerns about an internal city audit that found irregularities in how APD’s contract psychologist was being paid. Berry didn’t respond. Two weeks later, Gibson saw the mayor at a news conference and asked why he hadn’t responded, and Berry agreed to meet with her in his City Hall office.
“He [Berry] said he had not read the internal audit report or my letter,” Gibson said. “I told him, ‘You really need to read it.’ I feel like I was stonewalled on the audit report. During the meeting, he said he’d have somebody get back to me. I’m still waiting.”
Former City Councilor Rey Garduño said Berry’s claim of working with councilors isn’t true. In his year as council president, Garduño said, Berry never met with him and in his eight years as a councilor, Garduño had only a handful of meetings with the mayor.
Garduño said that in the beginning of Berry’s first term, the two had mutual standing offers to hold monthly meetings. He recalled Berry attending one, maybe two, but subsequently one of the mayor’s aides would call a day before the scheduled meeting to cancel, Garduño said. “After he canceled three times, I gave up,” Garduño said.
Both Gibson and Garduño said they believe Berry’s refusal to cooperate with them, meaning Democrats, was most likely at the direction of Republican political consultant Jay McCleskey, who ran Berry’s two campaigns. McCleskey has a reputation as a ruthless operative who councils public officials to limit their access to political friends and to shun news media pursuing potentially damaging stories.
The FBI is investigating McCleskey in connection with some of Gov. Susana Martinez’s fundraising efforts. McCleskey also advises the governor, who also limits access to the news media.
ABQ Free Press has run opinion pieces and editorials that have been critical of Berry, a poll in which our readers castigated the mayor’s performance, and news stories that challenged some of his claims. It is not uncommon for public officials to try to limit access by reporters and media organizations that are critical of them, but we don’t know whether that’s why Schroeder has failed to answer our questions because, well, she refuses to call or email us back.
(She did respond recently to our editorial intern’s inquiries about Albuquerque’s favorable ranking for digital access among U.S. cities, and the city’s installation of retractable bollards along bike paths to facilitate maintenance access, but she basically referred the intern back to her original news release).
Shortly before this issue of ABQ Free Press went to press, Schroeder was sent a list of six questions about the mayor’s news media policy, including this one: “Do you feel that city taxpayers who are paying your $69,000-a-year salary – that includes Free Press readers – are getting their money’s worth in your refusal to respond to media inquiries and answer questions?” She did not respond.
If limiting access by critical media is official policy at the mayor’s office, that would be improper because Schroeder is being paid with public funds and has the responsibility to treat all media outlets fairly, said Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
“Their role [public information officers] should be to respond to inquiries. They’re kind of the buffer between the press and the public official,” Boe said. “Their job is to treat all members of the press fairly and equally.”
Councilor Isaac Benton said it is “absolutely not” proper for Schroeder to refuse to answer ABQ Free Press questions involving public policy. “Why hire a person for that?” Benton asked. “Why do they have that position? It does seem to be a waste of public funds.”
Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Send your news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org
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