George Boardman: The only thing transparent is the effort by officials to limit criticism
The scene has become a familiar one. One of our public agencies or officials is in the cross-hairs of a potentially embarrassing situation, and they have decided to confront the media via Zoom or tape rather than face-to-face.
In its latest iteration, the city of Grass Valley was in the penalty box, faced with the challenge of explaining away a cyber attack on the city’s computers that revealed police and other records to criminals who demanded a ransom to limit their exposure.
The city’s putative leaders, Mayor Ben Aguilar and City Manager Tim Kiser, showed up for the Zoom fest along with the rest of the City Council, but had little to say. They left the talking to City Attorney Michael Calantuono and Police Chief Alex Gammelgard, sort of a civic version of “lawyering up.”
The two front men emphasized that the ransom — How much? None of your business — was covered by the city’s insurance, as if that fact made this breach in the public’s trust OK. But as anybody who has ever done it knows, making insurance claims are usually followed by premium increases, which will be paid by taxpayers.
Then there’s the matter of how much Calantuono billed the city for this exercise in public relations and image restoration. But we did learn from (of all people) Gammelgard that there is honor among thieves, at least the cyber theft version. Still, several questions were left hanging that serious residents may want answered.
Nobody would detail how the computers were breached and how it will be fixed because such information might weaken future preventative efforts. Does that mean the city’s computers are still vulnerable to cyber attack?
Since this is not a novel crime, what has the city done in the past to protect its computers other than segmenting various systems? Why did it just recently hire a new consultant with a focus on cyber security? The city canceled its computer contract with the county and brought the work in-house a couple of years ago. Was that a good idea?
Since sensitive police information was compromised, how secure is criminal evidence — the stuff that has to remain unaltered until it is presented at trial — needed to prosecute offenders? Some defense attorneys may pose that question at future trials.
Gammelgard has previous experience in these exercises, having teamed up with Sheriff Shannan Moon last year to explain the shooting of Gabriel Strickland, who was killed when deputies and Grass Valley police confronted him with what they thought was a gun. The weapon turned out to be an Airsoft rifle.
Moon did a solo turn recently in the shooting of Sage Crawford. It was about her only contact with the media since the February shooting until the recent community meeting for victims of the River fire, where she took the opportunity to pat her office — and indirectly — herself on the back.
In both instances, Gammelgard and Moon controlled the narrative, and the extensively edited video offered as evidence of their version of what happened. But at least they made a half-hearted effort to face the public, which is more than can be said about some other local agencies that are suddenly feeling the heat of unwanted publicity.
Sierra College has reluctantly admitted it has been the victim of a cyber attack, but has not been forthcoming about the extent of the attack and how it may have damaged students and others. Don’t forget Nevada City’s report on the confrontation between Black Lives Matter and some local thugs.
Not one person got any blame in the city’s report. In fact, nobody was named. But don’t worry: The interim police chief is going to come up with recommendations to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.
Then there’s the matter of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County, which is experiencing its own little brush fire over allegations of misconduct and secrecy involving the contract of Executive Director Jamie Jones.
Jones is currently working under an interim contract that pays her $140,000 in addition to various benefits, more than most school district superintendents in this county earn, and considerably more than her counterparts in Santa Clara County and the California Fire Safe Council.
The council’s board is scheduled to vote on a permanent contract for Jones in October, but none of the details have been made public. Director Eric Trygg told The Union he has been unable to obtain specifics about Jones’ benefits package, and neither Jones nor the council will comment publicly.
None of this should be surprising. Public officials love to mouth platitudes about transparency until something happens that might make them look bad. Law enforcement pioneered this work decades ago with the blue wall of silence — I sometimes think they take a POST course on the subject — and technology like Zoom makes it easy for public officials to wall themselves off from the people they supposedly serve.
Some public officials will give you the excuse that COVID-19 made them do it, but nothing that resembles a press conference around here comes anywhere close to being a super spreader event. They already use email to limit their contact with media and avoid the questions they don’t want to answer. Issuing videos is just another way of doing it.
Changes in the media landscape make it easier for officials at the county and local levels to escape criticism. The loss of small newspapers and the manpower reductions in the papers that are left don’t help either. It’s hard to devote significant resources to one story when you already lack the personnel required to do the basic work expected of newspapers.
Most radio and television news operations aren’t really serious about doing serious reporting, and social media is too scattered and suspect to have any real impact on public officials. It’s up to us to pay attention to what’s happening at the local level, and to hold officials and those who are elected to appoint them accountable for their actions.
George Boardman lives in Nevada City. His column is published biweekly on Tuesdays by The Union. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE RIVER Fire proved once again that YubaNet is the gold standard when it comes to up-to-date information on local fires. If you use the site and don’t subscribe, it’s time to pay up…THE COUNTY’S emergency dashboard continues to generate confusion and complaints on social media. How long is it going to take to get it right?…I’M WILLING to bet that most people don’t know their evacuation zone number, which will slow their escape from danger… PEOPLE WHO fret about high housing prices here should get some relief from the fire coverage we’ve been getting in the Chronicle. If the two page one stories on August 6 don’t discourage people from moving up here, nothing will…ARE PEOPLE who work for Tesla called Muskateers?
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