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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Fair
The Daily

WATCHDOG

A 'gag rule' at city parks
Concerns mount over administrator's communications policy

Briski thinks his media policy has 'helped facilitate
efficient communication.' Barker sees no need for 'this level of secrecy or formalized
communications structure.'
Briski thinks his media policy has 'helped facilitate efficient communication.' Barker sees no need for 'this level of secrecy or formalized communications structure.'
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Kathy Esposito says the first thing Marla Eddy told her at a presentation on forestry in mid-December was, "I can't talk to you." Eddy, Madison's city forester, conveyed in an email that Esposito must first "touch base with our PIO" - public information officer.

And so Esposito, a longtime Isthmus contributor, asked the PIO, Laura Whitmore, for permission to talk with Eddy. It was never granted. Whitmore eventually asked Esposito to "forward the specific questions you had in mind." Esposito replied that she wanted an actual conversation, since "I can't know in advance every question."

Whitmore, contacted by an Isthmus editor about this impasse, said "Marla feels uncomfortable" talking to this reporter. "She doesn't want to do it. I respect her wishes."

Esposito notes that Eddy was quoted in her last story on city forestry and praised it at this presentation. Eddy this week sent an email to Isthmus, which read in part: "I appreciate the process we have in place receiving media inquiries through the Parks PIO as it helps us all facilitate our departmental message. As far as discussing things with Kathy Esposito, I find it difficult due to her lack of interview structure."

Such statements - heavily composed and premeditated, sounding nothing at all like people talk - show why reporters prefer actual conversations. But in this case Esposito's story necessarily appears (here) without quotes from Eddy, the city's most knowledgeable person on this issue.

As Isthmus has reported (Watchdog, 1/22/09), Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski, upon taking over in June 2008, began requiring that all media inquiries be routed through Whitmore. He thinks this policy has worked out well: "It's helped facilitate efficient communication."

But clearly the new policy has struck fear in the hearts of some Parks employees. One person even asked not to be quoted saying s/he could not be quoted.

On the other hand, Parks planning supervisor Kay Rutledge last week gamely fielded an inquiry from Isthmus, providing details on the city's acquisition of 23 acres of land adjacent to Cherokee March. ("Laura's not here right now," she stated. "That's why I took your call.")

Rutledge doesn't mind Briski's communication policy, saying it's similar to her previous parks job in Virginia. But it's not typical for Madison, and the fear and reticence it's causing is stirring some official concern.

"I've had people say to me, 'I'm not supposed to talk to you,'" relates Bill Barker, president of Madison's Park Commission, of his contacts with Parks staff. And while he doesn't want to "micromanage how Kevin does his job," he finds the policy perplexing. "There's nothing going on at Parks that requires this level of secrecy or formalized communications structure."

Barker thinks Parks staffers should be able to freely discuss their areas of expertise, as before: "The tradition of the city has always been transparency and open government. Anything that runs counter to that is not a good idea."

Briski suggests Barker has it wrong, saying "the only policy and process we have" regarding staff contacts with Parks commissioners and other city officials is that they let Briski know about these conversations.

But Ald. Paul Skidmore, a longtime Park Commission member, says he's also "been told by some staff people that they are not supposed to talk to alders." In one case, a staffer who answered his questions on a given matter was purportedly warned not to do this again.

Skidmore is not aware of any other city agency that imposes such a "gag rule" - his term - on its employees. "I don't think I've ever worked with a director in any city department who was quite like this."

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz says he's "surprised to hear that anybody's fearful" or that park commissioners are concerned. He likens the policy at Parks to the one he put in place in his office, with media calls going first to a designated aide: "I think it's reasonable that the press should have one point of contact."

Madison's abolition movement

There's good reason to applaud the awareness campaign known as SlaveFree Madison, which is staging a presentation on Thursday, Jan. 28, at the Sequoya Branch Library, 7-8 p.m. Human trafficking is an ongoing problem, encompassing migrant farm workers, restaurant workers and sex-industry workers - victims of economic and physical coercion.

"Modern-day slavery is in our own backyard," says the group's chair, JoAnn Gruber Hagen, in a press release. "Slaves are usually held against their will, by force, beatings, drugs or violent threats toward the victim's family." (The group's website, www.slavefreemadison.org, is "coming in February.")

But what's most extraordinary is that the effort has the early support of Dave Cieslewicz. Mayors tend to be squeamish about admitting slavery exists in their cities.

SlaveFree Madison's release says the mayor signed a proclamation "in recognition that human trafficking can happen locally as well as globally."

Cieslewicz says he didn't mean to affirm that there are slaves in Madison: "To be honest, it's not something I've spent a lot of time studying or looking into." But he nonetheless stakes out a position.

"It's not that controversial to say importing women or anyone for the purpose of prostitution is reprehensible," he says. "Obviously, if that's taking place here, we're very much against it."

A moving tribute

Few people in Madison are as regular as Peter Leidy when it comes to churning out creative ideas. But the Madison-based political songsmith outdid himself with his latest discharge, a two-minute video called "The Bowel Song," deposited last week on YouTube. A sample verse, delivered amid footage of Leidy reaching for the Fiber One:

"If you take my advice and you listen to my story, then your bowels will be a-moving and a-grooving in their glory. Or perhaps you'll benefit from a good suppository; either way, in the end, you'll be feelin' hunky-dory. Ooo, ahhh, bowels are everything."

It's Leidy's first music video, not counting YouTube clips of his appearances on Wisconsin Public Television. He wrote the song eight or nine years ago after hearing an in-service presentation on "bowels and bladder" by Dr. Bill Schwab, a Madison family practice physician.

"None of the song is verbatim what he said except 'bowels are everything,'" gushes Leidy, who works with people with disabilities. The song became an audience favorite and once got played on Dr. Demento's nationally syndicated radio show. When Leidy and a technologically savvy neighbor, Jackson Eagan, discussed making a music video together, it immediately popped to mind.

The video is dedicated to Dr. Schwab, who last week sent Leidy an appreciative email: "I'm honored by the shout out, from the top of my esophagus to the bottom of my...well, you know."

When speech is too free

State GOP chair Reince Priebus, quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal reacting positively to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling letting corporations spend directly on elections: "It may lift some chains of restraint. I think it may even open up some of the transparency." Say what?

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