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Capitol Perspectives: Spokespersons Who Will Not Speak

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JEFFERSON CITY (Capitol Correspondent Phil Brooks) - Earlier this month, Missouri experienced an extraordinary series of government spokespersons who refused to speak.

The week of Oct. 11 was an unusually busy news cycle. The Corrections Department issued a release that it was returning to the European manufacturer a drug used for executions. A few days later, Gov. Jay Nixon suspended a scheduled execution.

Nixon’s office announced the immediate replacement of the Agriculture Department director. The governor ordered the Natural Resources Department to come up with plans to staff closed national parks.

Also that week, reports arose that the administration was seeking a cutback in food stamps for lower income Missourians.

Yet, my reporters could not get a single spokesperson from an agency involved in any of these stories to speak with us about the reasons or the details. Reporters from other news organization were equally unsuccessful.

There was nothing from the Corrections Department to explain how much Propofol they had left for executions. Did their decision to return doses from a European manufacture leave them short for the execution? What were they doing to come up with a new method for executions as ordered by the governor?

Nothing from the Agriculture Department to explain whether the outgoing director was fired or resigned. Was there any relationship between the departure and a top staffer’s complaints about a hostile work environment? What is the department doing about those complaints?

No response from the Social Services Department on the food stamp cuts. Why were they cutting benefits?

Nothing from the Natural Resources Department on drafting plans to staff federal parks closed by the budget shutdown. Could they open the Gateway Arch, as the governor’s release suggested?

And, finally, we got no answers from the governor’s office to many of these questions.

It made me curious just how much was being spent for these spokespersons who won’t speak and communications directors who refuse to communicate.

So, I went to Missouri’s government accountability portal. I counted only the salaries of the top communications staffer from each office — figuring that only one person actually needed to answer our questions.

Even with that limited query, I was surprised at how much was being paid for these non-speaking spokespersons. It is more than $330,000 per year.

The wall of silence we encountered that week has become a pattern throughout Nixon’s administration that has grown beyond anything I’ve experienced in more than four decades covering Missouri’s statehouse.

It goes beyond spokespersons refusing comment. Reporters complain of top communications officials who will not even return phone calls or respond to emails. Other times, the response is delayed until it’s too late to be included in the news story.

Even the administration’s website on official government meetings no longer includes agenda items. There’s a fancy map of the meeting’s location, but no indication as to what will be discussed or a link to get the agenda.

It’s becoming routine for agencies in Nixon’s administration to demand questions be submitted in advance by email before any response is returned.

One of my reporters filed a legal public records demand on his email questions to an agency and found the issue had gone straight to the governor’s office for review.

That’s quite a contrast to the administration of Gov. Kit Bond decades ago. His top staff worked with reporters to get answers from agencies. Whenever we couldn’t get a quick and meaningful response, we’d go to the governor’s staff who quickly called up the agency to order cooperation.

I must confess that this was a difficult column for me to write. Government reporters have almost a visceral aversion to writing about themselves. But it is difficult to exaggerate how this cloak of secrecy and silence has restricted our ability to report what your government is doing and how it is spending your tax dollars.

It has become a major public policy issue for Missouri state government — what is the responsibility of government to be transparent and responsive to questions?
By KMOX Capitol Correspondent Phil Brooks

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