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August 12, 2002

A Lesson In The Realities of Public Affairs

Norman M. Covert

It doesn't surprise anyone, most of all this writer, that Mizmayor has a strong opinion of the power she believes the voters gave her last fall. She is mistaken, however, in her obvious belief that she heads the food chain in city government. Her chain of command, to use a military term, does not include members of the Board of Aldermen.

How wrong she was in her assessment that Alderman Dave Lenhart could not speak his mind in a television interview, in which she claims he attempted to "represent the city" and its intentions in fighting to save the Ten Commandments Stone in Memorial Grounds Park.

Mizmayor was disrespectful and spiteful and should apologize for an outburst more associated with a woman scorned than with the mayor of a thriving, modern city. She continues to fail to bring any dignity to this important position.

Mr. Lenhart himself earned the right to speak his mind when the voters cast ballots putting him in office as alderman for the City of Frederick.

No one seems to be able to quote verbatim the comments Mr. Lenhart made in a television interview last week, but it appears the crux of the matter was that he told an interviewer that he felt there was a consensus on the board that it should fight any attempts to have the stone moved from the cemetery.

Mr. Lenhart can make any statements and claim anything he wants, as long as he can get away with it. He answers to the voters. It's the same with Mizmayor, who has made numerous claims, whether she had the ultimate authority or not and whether she was accurate or not. She, too, can climb up on a soapbox, and she certainly does. She apparently doesn't like the competition, which found a bigger media market.

Professional public affairs practitioners will tell you that successfully dealing with the media on behalf of a private corporation relies on the confidence and authority given the spokesman by the chief executive officer. It is not a comfortable life by any means. The "spokesman" has no job security because of the daily risk of misspeaking, or being misquoted, or having his or her comments printed out of context.

It takes courage for the public affairs professionals to face the media in a crisis situation and attempt to explain corporate failure, while the brass runs for cover. They earn every dollar paid them.

It is interesting that the public information officers for both the city (a $60K plus salary) and the county (paid about half the city salary) are seldom seen nor heard. Neither apparently is empowered to speak on subjects of any consequence. They become glorified administrative assistants and publication editors only. For these public information practitioners to speak authoritatively would earn them status and no elected official wants competition.

The rules of engagement for a military spokesman are based on guidance from the commander and leadership from up the chain of command. Any public pronouncements are subject to security concerns, not the least of which is the impact of statements on the safety of the troops.

Like corporate public affairs, pronouncements must fit the overall plan dealing with image, advertising campaigns and product acceptance, and as we' ve seen in recent months the ultimate value of the company stock.

Sometimes there is a delicate balance on the public's "right to know" and the assigned mission regarding the military. The military spokesman, however, always understands that the commander is the commander and subordinates must toe the line. Commanders are more valuable commanding rather than answering questions from the public and that's where the public affairs officer comes into play.

In Army public affairs, there is a "single voice" concept, that is, one person is the primary spokesman, purveying the official "word" in any given subject. Only two persons are authorized to speak for the command, the commander himself and the public affairs officer - the designated spokesman. Col. Mark Hoke and I didn't always agree, but there was never doubt that he was the commander at Fort Detrick.

It is different in local government, where elected leaders can climb a bully pulpit at will and not have to agree with the "commander," or in this case Mizmayor. Her chain of command involves employees of the city, not other elected officials.

Mizmayor was elected to one office and has executive authority in City Hall. The aldermen are not her subordinates, but equals in a government established as the executive branch, the legislative branch and judicial branch.

Mizmayor may believe she has been elected to be the queen and thus everyone must hop to her every command. Not so! As our elected mayor, she is subject to the built-in checks and balances of representative government. That remains unchanged since the American Revolution.

The city charter, which she has been wont to quote recently, directs that the mayor serves with the advice and consent of the Board of Aldermen. Unfortunately we've seen her abuse that privilege and public trust with sleight of hand in her staff appointments.

She uses the trappings of her office to pursue her own political agenda at the regular Tuesday press conferences. That is her privilege and she obviously says whatever comes into her head without consulting with the Board of Aldermen.

Likewise, it is the right of Mr. Lenhart and the other aldermen to conduct their own press conferences or meet with reporters individually and project their own "take" on issues affecting the city. They need not consult with Mizmayor. It is also Mr. Lenhart's duty to use staff to research information on city issues, that is the staff's role. They are not dedicated solely to Mizmayor.

However, realistically, Mizmayor and Mr. Lenhart need to have a meeting of the minds, just as she must earn the trust of others on the board to map out a public affairs plan, especially regarding the Ten Commandments Stone, to project a "single voice" intent in City Hall.

We must stop the petty bickering and unify the effort. That is in the best interests of the city.

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