Opinion: Who needs a PIO? You don’t

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Might as well toss this straight out on the table.

I don’t think Kootenai County needs a public information officer, and I’m hoping Sam Taylor’s decision not to take the job will stop this rush to fill an invented position.

At the very least, the whole question should be put in the hands of the new commission once two new members come aboard in January.

I can tell you from unpleasant experience that having a PIO does not necessarily improve communications between county commissioners (nor other elected officials) and the general public — not to mention the media.

What actually happens is that the people who should be talking to us then have a built-in shield — with the PIO “translating” county information and officials’ opinions into short, noncommittal statements.

I have never seen, not once in a long journalism career, any city or county elected official make a truly critical or controversial statement by going through a press officer.

The Press editorial on Wednesday called for transparency in hiring a new PIO.

I agree, but …

To be honest, I’m far more concerned about transparency in executing the job itself.

For instance, it’s hard enough to reach commissioners now.

Now imagine putting a PIO in the middle of that.

Could we walk up to a commissioner following a regular meeting, or would everything have to go through a spokesperson?

This is another needless layer of government, and one that commissioners and other county officials could use to wall themselves off from the public.

Yes, the sheriff has a PIO, and frankly I don’t think that system works well at all.

I can’t speak for the public trying to get answers from the department, but it’s not as helpful as necessary for the media.

When communication goes through a PIO, there is no opportunity for follow-up questions or an actual dialogue.

That’s a poor system, plain and simple.

BEFORE coming to North Idaho, I was the executive editor of the daily paper in Manhattan, Kan.

Manhattan and surrounding Riley County are roughly the same size as our population here.

One huge difference in Kansas, however, was the openness of both city and county government.

There was no PIO in either case.

The city had a deputy administrator — basically the same job that Taylor held in Coeur d’Alene — to help direct questions or problems to the proper department.

But that was it.

All three county commissioners, plus assorted officials (planning, zoning, assessor, etc.) were routinely available to the public and gave their cellphone numbers to the media.

Inside Manhattan itself, anyone could phone a department head or simply walk into City Hall to meet with whatever official was needed.

Again, direct lines and cellphone numbers were made available to the media.

In my mind, THAT is the type of transparency that gives citizens confidence that they are true partners with the city and county.

There is absolutely no reason we can’t do that here, unless …

Officials would rather not explain things to us.

I damn sure know which system works best.

•••

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.

A Brand New Day appears Wednesday through Saturday each week. Steve’s sports column runs on Tuesday.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com.

Twitter:@BrandNewDayCDA

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