Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert wants her brand-new administration to speak with one voice.
So in a Wednesday memo to city department heads, Stothert ordered that no “department directors or any staff member of any city department” speak to the news media without prior review or approval from Stothert's chief of staff or spokeswoman.
“There should never be confusion or uncertainty regarding city policies and procedures,” said Stothert's memo, titled “Directive — Media Interaction.''
Heads of the city's fire and police unions wonder how Stothert's order affects their members or even their own roles as labor union leaders.
“It also raises the question,” said Police Sgt. John Wells, union head, “what are they trying to hide?”
Top staff in the Mayor's Office said the policy was simply designed to clear communication lines during Stothert's transition. The new mayor has worked diligently to control her message since launching her mayoral campaign.
“We're not telling (employees), 'You can't talk,' ” said Marty Bilek, Stothert's chief of staff. “We're just saying, 'Before you do, would you give us a call in the Mayor's Office?' Just give us a buzz and let us know what you're going to say.”
Carrie Murphy, a former television journalist who served her first day Wednesday as Stothert's communication director, said the policy applied only to city employees who were on duty and discussing city policies.
She said the policy would not affect how fire or police personnel speak to the news media after, say, a traffic accident or house fire.
“This applies to department heads in matters of policy and the administration, not things like the news release you get in your newsroom,” Murphy said.
“If anybody would violate the policy or break the rule, that would all be handled case-by-case,” she said.
Bilek said the administration has discussed the directive since taking office Monday. He declined to say the policy was temporary, but he said it could be.
“It's designed to resolve a problem that's probably only going to exist in the near term. That's just because we're in a period of transition, and (city staff) need a chance to interact so we're all aware of what the new mayor's philosophies are.”
Steve LeClair, president of the Omaha firefighters union, dismissed the memo with an allusion to the heated mayor's race. Firefighters backed Stothert's opponent, former Mayor Jim Suttle.
“I have immediate concern that a mayor who campaigned on a platform of, among other things, transparency in government has taken this position of 'circle the wagons and everyone keep your mouths shut' within 48 hours of being sworn in,” LeClair wrote in an email to city lawyers, Fire Chief Mike McDonnell and three reporters.
Such strongly worded exchanges between union members and top city officials aren't unusual or without controversy.
In a 2009 ruling, the Nebraska Supreme Court said a union newspaper column that criticized then-Mayor Mike Fahey and Police Chief Tom Warren as “petty criminals” was protected speech. Sgt. Kevin Housh was fired over his 2005 column but reinstated after agreeing to publicly apologize and drop a federal lawsuit.
Bilek said Stothert's order did not affect a long-stated campaign pledge of government transparency.
“She plans on having a very transparent city government,” Bilek said. “I believe that you're going to have greater access to government than you ever have. Just check with us before you talk, that's all we're saying.”
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