After placing a routine request for documents relating to Phoenix's curfew program, New Times happened upon a copy of a "confidential" city missive informing the city council, the mayor and senior staff of the following:
"The New Times' Amy Silverman is apparently doing a story on Phoenix's curfew," it read, under the heading "Press."
Of course, New Times hadn't even seen the curfew documents, much less decided whether they supported a story worth writing. But the internal news flash appeared within a couple of days of the initial request.
Then it took more than two weeks and repeated requests to get the curfew documents.
The city's media warning system is contained in something titled Random Notes, a weekly publication compiled by the city council's executive assistant, Rick Naimark, a $77,000-per-year liaison between the city administration and the council.
Naimark's tip sheet shares its title with a Rolling Stone column that provides a lively mishmash of news about music and musicians. The Phoenix city government version, however, is alternately banal and paranoid.
The copies of the city's RN New Times obtained (Naimark doesn't keep back issues, he says, so only a few that were lying around the council offices could be retrieved) tell of, among other boring things, official dedications, the mayor's whereabouts, staff changes, the deadline for filing financial disclosure forms. The pressing issue of hand raising (that is, whether councilmembers need to do it when voting) was also addressed. But then there are the warnings of evil media activity in our booming metropolis. Hey, officials, get your stonewalls and sound bites ready:
January 2--Gazette Inquiry: Russ Hemphill has been researching the voter outreach and absentee voting program and asking about the cost effectiveness, etc., so you may see a story or be interviewed. There has been a tremendous increase in early voting due to this program, and citizens are very happy with this opportunity.
January 31--Positive News: The television show 20/20 will be in Phoenix February 3-4 to file a story on the Curfew program. A film crew will be riding with Phoenix officers and will visit one of the centers.
February 15--Lobbyist Filings: FYI, the Republic and Gazette were both in last week to review the lobbyist registration files. The more interesting story will probably come when the quarterly filings are due.
June 6--Press: The New Times' Amy Silverman is apparently doing a story on Phoenix's curfew.
Both the Republic and the Gazette are doing stories on our home occupation regulations.
June 13--Media Contacts: The Gazette's Ben Winton has contacted Neighborhood Services about family, parenting, children and youth issues--his new beat.
Chris Mayes of the Gazette has also contacted NSD regarding the rising numbers of Hispanic children with lead poisoning. The New Times was given backup requested on 52 purchases that did not go through the formal bidding process.
June 27--Press: Barbara Holsopple, the TV writer for the Gazette, is doing a story on the $100,000 public access budget as compared to our $1 million Channel 11 budget. The Gazette is adding a second full-time reporter. Chris Fiscus, a former business and police reporter, will be moving into the 12th Floor office. Russ and Chris will cover both the City and the County. The New Times is doing a story on the Mercado, apparently focusing on the original UDAG loan. They have asked staff for various files and documents.
July 5--Press: The L.A. Times has requested information on the Sheriff's Posse activities in Phoenix.
Naimark hasn't published an edition of Random Notes since a couple of weeks ago--about the time New Times started looking for back issues. Naimark says things are slow. City Manager Frank Fairbanks says Naimark is rethinking the document's effectiveness.
Councilmember Craig Tribken, for one, thinks Random Notes is a good thing. He calls it "information free marketeering," and says Naimark has a difficult job.
"It's kinda like walking through a minefield of eight fragile politicians' egos," Tribken says, referring to the council. "If any one of them has a story that happens to say they bleed in submortal fashion, they [the councilmember] may explode and blow his [Naimark's] leg off. So he winds up being this very open conduit. Nobody can say, 'Hey, you knew somebody was working on a story about my coffee table and you didn't tell me!'"
Fairbanks defends Naimark. "Frankly," he says, "the council doesn't like reading in the newspaper about issues. They frequently have spoken to me about, 'Gee, why didn't we hear about that before it was in the newspaper?' or 'Why didn't we hear about this before it got to be a big issue?'" Naimark says he has a system: City staffers warn him when they receive a media inquiry. "People usually contact me when they get a call from somebody, just so the council, you know, isn't completely surprised by a headline in the paper," he says.
Set aside, for a moment, the question of whether Random Notes proves the city staff to be paranoid. Let's consider effectiveness.
Mark Hughes, director of public information for the city, says he's never heard of Random Notes.
He's never reported a media request to Naimark. And, he says, laughing, "I get press inquiries about 50 times a day.