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PD Editorial: Why cities shouldn't be publishers

Allen Thomas of the West End Neighborhood Association in Santa Rosa says his group will follow the city's guidelines on newsletters, which essentially puts the city in the role of editor.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 5:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 5:58 p.m.

What's a more basic example of public information than a City Council vote?

In Santa Rosa, as with many cities, council meetings are on television. Many of the votes are reported in this newspaper. All of them are recorded in the official meeting minutes.

Yet when the West End Neighborhood Association reported a vote in its latest newsletter, Santa Rosa city officials objected.

It seems the city picks up the printing costs for neighborhood newsletters through the Community Advisory Board. The latest West End newsletter cost $120 for 650 copies, and most of them were delivered by hand to neighborhood residents. The association paid for the newsletter after the city squawked.

City officials say paying for newsletters is a way to support community organizations. Unfortunately, it also shows what can go wrong when government takes on the role of publisher.

The four-page West End newsletter promotes an emergency preparedness meeting and includes a story about a new neighborhood representative to the Chop's Teen Club. It's all pretty routine stuff.

So is the item at issue.

At the bottom of the third page is a short update on the expansion of the BoDean asphalt plant. The item names four council members who sided with the plant owners on a Nov. 6 vote. It paraphrases one of them, Scott Bartley, suggesting ways to make the plant less visible to neighbors, and it lists two websites affiliated with opponents of the expansion.

Some people would call this citizen journalism. City officials called it a possible violation of campaign finance laws.

Among other things, the state Political Reform Act bars elected officials from using publicly funded newsletters to promote themselves. Reporting the individual votes may run afoul of those rules, City Attorney Caroline Fowler told the West End Neighborhood Association.

We're not lawyers, but that strikes us as an awfully narrow interpretation of the rules, one that threatens the credibility and value of these kinds of newsletters. What benefit is a neighborhood bulletin that can't report on City Council actions taken in that area?

The law says a mailer isn't allowed if it refers to an elected official “and is prepared or sent in cooperation or consultation with the elected officer.”

There's no evidence of consultation here. To the contrary, many West End residents opposed the asphalt plant expansion, so supporters had little to gain from having their names in the newsletter.

Allen Thomas, an association board member, said past newsletters featured council members without any objection from the city. In the future, however, he said the group will adhere to the city's guidelines, which essentially puts the city attorney in the role of editor.

Wouldn't it be simpler to offer grants to neighborhood groups and let them edit and publish their own work? Or, better yet, agree on a more reasonable interpretation of the law?

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