Media relations have not been a strong suit of the city of Santa Ana in recent years. In fact, many reporters view city officials as openly hostile to public information and open meeting laws.
This unhealthy dynamic was on full display in January when PBS SoCal’s David Nazar requested interviews with Santa Ana City Council members for a story having to do with charges of corruption leveled at the city by a coalition of Latino organizations.
Executive Director of Public Affairs Jill Arthur declined the interview request on behalf of council members. But as it turned out, Arthur did not tell several council members that the request had been made.
Councilman Vincent Sarmiento acknowledged as much during an on-air interview with Nazar after the original story had aired. Sarmiento went on to say that the city would retain a director of communications to avoid such problems in the future.
The city made good on Sarmiento’s vow and contracted with Don McAuliffe in the following months. But McAuliffe’s contract ran out on June 30 — and it wasn’t renewed.
This was news to Sarmiento as well as to council members Michele Martinez, David Benavides and Sal Tinajero.
“Are you kidding me?” Tinajero said. “With all the different issues that happen in our city, we need a public information officer.”
Apparently the intent was to have McAuliffe serve as interim PIO while the city searched for a successor. But officials couldn’t accomplish that before the end of the fiscal year, and now funding is a question.
“It’s still a huge commitment of ours,” Martinez insisted.
Interim City Manager Paul Walters, who is also the city’s police chief, said the city will eventually hire a full-time PIO.
“We’ll have a PIO. It’s just a matter of how we do it — what’s the most cost efficient way to do it,” Walters said.
Meanwhile, McAuliffe said that while outreach had improved a bit at the city in recent months, it still has a way to go.
“You don’t turn around a battleship in 300 feet. It takes a while,” McAuliffe said. “It’s going to require a change in thinking, and if they’re willing to do that, they’ll have better media relations and better relations with the community.”
One suggestion he has for city officials is not to clam up when reporters call. Reporters, he said, are more likely to dig up something negative if they feel they’re being stonewalled.
He likened it to a police officer stopping a motorist. If the driver is rude, it’s more likely the driver will be ticketed. “As a former reporter, I tried to explain to them that you should always be trying to put your best foot forward and not shirk the interview process,” McAuliffe said.
Mayor Miguel Pulido and council members Claudia Alvarez and Carlos Bustamante did not return calls for comment.
— ADAM ELMAHREK