Aspen Times Editorial: Crown Mountain Park board proposal for PR policy is bad idea |

Aspen Times Editorial: Crown Mountain Park board proposal for PR policy is bad idea

Aspen Times Editorial Board

The Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District’s board of directors walked themselves back from voting to approve a “PR Policy” that is balanced on a slippery slope at their Dec. 11 meeting.

After objections by The Aspen Times were raised about the proposed policy, the board voted to table the matter until a future meeting when its consulting attorney could be present.

The public relations policy would designate the district’s executive director, Becky Wagner, as the public information officer.

As proposed, all media inquires would be funneled to the executive director for the “official” district opinion.

The policy states that if the elected board members decide to speak to the media, they must provide a “disclaimer” that they are providing personal opinions and not the official district position.

In correspondence with The Aspen Times about the policy, Wagner said the board members “don’t have to talk to the media. They are volunteers with other jobs. This (policy) gives the media the person with all the information to provide district info and official positions to the media. It does not at all say that individual board members can’t talk to the media, just clarifies that in doing so they are speaking personally, not as the district official.”

We believe the policy would create a chilling effect on board members (who are elected, not volunteers) speaking their minds on issues, especially those with a minority view. It would potentially remove the people elected by voters from accountability.

We foresee this policy being trotted out by nervous board members whenever the district tackles a controversial issue. The standard response could become, “I’m sorry, you will have to talk to executive director Becky Wagner about that issue.”

In a similar vein, the Aspen School District board adheres to policy governance, in which it permits only the board president to speak on behalf of the other four elected officials when outside of a meeting. We saw this come to light during the discussion of former Superintendent John Maloy’s performance and job status in the fall of 2018.

As the debate went on, the then-board president declined our requests for in-person interviews with her, Maloy and another board member, and she also suggested Maloy not speak to The Aspen Times.

We feel voters were not given the full opinions of those who vote for and against re-upping Maloy’s contract, which was ultimately not renewed.

As we stated in an editorial in January about the school board, we understand why it doesn’t want to politicize issues, but the public has a right to know how each individual board member falls on issues, other than what is said in board meetings.

The people who voted for those school board members should have an expectation to know where they stand on particular issues.

One voice is not who the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District constituents elected to represent them.

Voters need to know the justification of why board members vote the way they do. It’s fundamental, critical oversight.

It was clear from Wagner’s comments at the Dec. 11 meeting that the PR policy was a reaction to recent media coverage that some Crown Mountain officials viewed as unfavorable. Wagner said at the board meeting the district should designate a point person to speak to reporters rather than “whoever they contact.”

Board of directors member Jennifer Riffle was criticized by fellow board members for giving her opinion for an article.

“We don’t need what happened in the articles,” Wagner said at the Dec. 11 meeting. “Those articles could have been avoided with proper information. I think a PR policy will help with that.”

When pressed by Riffle on how the PR policy would have affected the articles, Wagner said, “It just streamlines everything. It gives a group response rather than an individual.”

Riffle said she wasn’t comfortable with the policy because she said it appears to her to violate right to free speech.

Board chairwoman Bonnie Scott countered she was completely in support of designating Wagner as the public information officer and “answering for us.”

The board members don’t need a PR person. This policy gives the appearance that the district is spending more time figuring out how to avoid public scrutiny than doing the work they were elected or hired to do.

Attempting to censor board members who don’t speak the company line is seems like an attempt to be less transparent. Transparency is what citizens should expect from their government.

By all means, the district should appoint a main person of contact. But don’t use the policy as a way to pump out a company line. Urge the board members to speak rather than clam up. It gives the appearance that they have something to hide, which causes more curiosity from the public.

The voters deserve to hear all the board members’ views. It is a given that what they say is their opinion; we don’t need a policy’s disclaimer to tell us that.

When the issue arises again in January, we hope the board members will reject it.

The Aspen Times editorial board consists of publisher Samantha Johnston, editor David Krause and reporters Rick Carroll, Scott Condon and Carolyn Sackariason.