Mayor Tim Keller and his administration are learning albeit the hard way the difference between running for office and governing, especially when making a decision and dealing with the media inquiries and the public.
After close to 4 months in office, a recent Federal Court ruling and the Keller Administration reaction to that ruling is yet another prime example that the Keller Administration is slowly developing the reputation that it and their public information officers (PIOs) do not know exactly what they are doing nor when nor how to stay on message.
Even worse, Albuquerque may have a Mayor whose PIOs have no idea what his decisions are, what he wants said to the media nor what he wants his top executives to be saying.
Keller’s public relations people and administration officials, when it comes to the release of public information, are not doing their boss much of a favor by trying to protect him from the decisions he makes and by playing games with the media by withholding information or not being candid with the media.
Being truthful is an issue of establishing trust.
Two news stories, one published April 4, 2018 by ABQ Reports (Dennis Domrzalski) and the other published on April 10, 2018 on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal, has highlighted the serious problem for a second time.
FEDERAL COURT RULING
On March 31, 2018 a federal judge filed a ruling against the city’s vehicle forfeiture program saying the city could not seize vehicles without a conviction.
In response to the court ruling, the Keller Administration announced it will no longer seize cars from suspected drunken drivers and others who have not been convicted.
Federal Court Judge James Browning found that the City of Albuquerque’s DWI vehicle seizure ordinance violates people’s rights to due process of law and that it also violates the state’s civil asset forfeiture law.
The state law requires a conviction before police can seize a person’s property.
The city’s vehicle forfeiture program has been around for 25 years.
The city has been claiming its vehicle seizure program does not violate a 2015 state law that bars property seizures by the government before a criminal conviction.
U.S. District Court Judge James Browning found otherwise, rejected the city position and refused to totally grant the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The federal law suit was brought by a woman whose car was seized by the city after her son was arrested for driving it while intoxicated and Judge Browning is allowing the case to move forward.
Judge Browning’s decision reads in part:
“The 2015 Amendment [to the state forfeiture law requires a criminal conviction before governments can seize property.] This purpose limiting forfeitures to criminal actions is expressly at odds with the City of Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture ordinance. … The Court concludes that the 2015 Amendments new purpose is strong evidence of the New Mexico Legislature’s intent to preclude municipalities from creating a civil forfeiture scheme.
“Although the Court concludes that the NMFA [New Mexico Forfeiture Act] preempts the City of Albuquerque’s forfeiture ordinance, the Court also concludes that this issue is novel as it is both new and notable.”
Most media outlets have reported Judge Browning’s decision merely allows the lawsuit to move forward.
The decision does much more and made specific findings that the city’s vehicle forfeiture violated the plaintiff’s due process rights in two ways:
A. By placing the burden of innocence on a vehicle’s owner, and
B. By the fact that the forfeiture program is funded by the revenues it generates and that the city has used seized vehicles for its own purposes.
Given the magnitude of the ruling, it was the ethical obligation of the City Attorney’s office to notify the Mayor and the Chief Administrative Officer of the ruling so a decision could be made by the Mayor on how to respond to any media inquiries and make decisions on any policy changes or recommendations.
The filing of the federal court order a full week before media inquiries gave the Mayor and his top executives and PIOs more than enough time to prepare a response to media inquiries.
If Keller or his top aides were not told of the court ruling when it came out, they should have had no comment until they could formulate a legitimate response.
APRIL 6, 2018 ABQ NEWS REPORT
On Friday, April 6, 2018, a full week after the court filing, ABQ News (Dennis Domrzalski) was the very first to publish a report on how the federal court judge ruled in the case.
The article was published by ABQ News only after it sought comment and a response from the Keller Administration.
On Saturday April 7, 2018, in response to the ABQ Reports article, Mayor Keller’s Deputy Chief of Staff Justine Tillman made an announcement on FACEBOOK and not directly to ABQ Reports.
What Tillman said in the FACEBOOK announcement was misleading:
“Earlier this week, Mayor Keller changed the policy to limit ABQ’s seizure program to cases where there has been a conviction. … In order to bring municipal law in line with state law and recent court rulings, Keller updated the policy and is calling on City Council to formally revise the ordinance. Going forward, APD is focusing its efforts on proactively combating drunk driving.”
By saying “earlier this week” it was not at all clear when nor how the changes in policy occurred.
The details and copies of whatever Mayor Keller ordered in regards to the city’s forfeiture program were not made immediately available, if in fact they were any to begin with, which resulted in Justin Tillman’s credibility coming into question and taking a hit.
Tillman added in another FACEBOOK post that those details would be coming soon.
By all accounts, nothing has yet materialized nor been released by the Keller Administration.
APRIL 18, 2018 ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL STORY
On Tuesday, April 10, 2018 the Albuquerque Journal published a front-page story entitled “Mayor changes city vehicle policy.”
The Journal story is replete with conflicts and statements to what actually is going on with the change in policy by the Keller Administration.
Following are 6 excerpts from the April 10 Journal report reflecting amateur contact when dealing with the media:
“In a statement Monday, Keller said he is asking the City Council to change the city’s ordinance to match his new policy. His office did not return repeated calls Monday seeking details.”
“Keller had said during his mayoral campaign that he disagreed with aspects of the seizure policy, and the Journal sought an interview Friday about the city’s ongoing vehicle seizures. The city canceled the interview and on Friday evening said the mayor was changing the policy. Follow-up calls were not returned.”
“On Monday, the mayor issued a statement that said: “Given changes in state law and recent court rulings, it’s time to update the city’s policy on vehicle seizures. As part of constitutional policing, APD can continue to seize assets in cases where there has been a conviction. I directed APD to implement this change and have requested City Council to update the ordinance.”
“The announcement about Keller’s policy change came a few hours after the city canceled an interview with the Journal on the topic.”
“Paul Gessing, the president of the Rio Grande Foundation, has advocated for changing seizure laws throughout the state, including Albuquerque. He said that Keller had said during the campaign that he would end the program but hadn’t taken action since taking office.”
NOT THE FIRST TIME
During the 2018 Mayor’s race, mayoral candidate Tim Keller made the repeated promise that his Administration would be transparent.
Keller also promised he would not raises taxes, even for public safety, without voter approval.
On Monday, March 5, 2018, the Albuquerque City Council voted to raise the city’s gross receipts tax rate by three-eighths of a percentage point to deal with a $40 million project deficit for fiscal year that commences July 1, 2018.
On Thursday, March 15, 2018, according to the city council web site, Mayor Tim Keller signed the $55 million a year tax increase enacted by the city council breaking his promise not to raise taxes unless there was a public vote approving it.
Mayor Keller signed the $55 million a year tax increase with no press conference, no fanfare, and no one looking on with no immediate news release.
On Monday, March 19, 2018, the ABQ Reports (Dennis Domrzalski) reported that the tax increase bill had been signed by Mayor Keller.
The ABQ Reports was able to do so only after reviewing the City Council’s web site to determine if the bill had been signed or vetoed.
On Saturday, March 24, 2018, the Albuquerque Journal, citing an email statement from the Mayor’s Office, and not a news release, reported that the tax increase had been signed by Mayor Keller.
It is probable that an email was sent only to the Journal late Friday, March 23, 2018.
It is more likely than not that no news release was issued in order to avoid excessive press coverage, especially by all the TV stations, that Keller had broken his campaign promise.
The Keller Administration is still very young and very green with less than four months in office.
There are approximately thirty public information officers that work for the city.
The Keller Administration does in fact have a few employees who have a wealth of experience having worked in the media in the past.
One of those employees works for Animal Welfare and use to work for the Albuquerque Journal.
Recently, the Keller Administration hired a former Assistant News Director who worked for a news station for 4 years and has 15 prior years experience in the Albuquerque market and who has a solid reputation.
There are at least two other PIOs who have worked for TV stations with respectable reputations.
The Mayor needs to identify an experienced news person to deal with the dissemination of information from not only his office but the entire city.
That person needs to be at the Mayor’s side to coordinate information when and where needed.
A PIO the Mayor can trust will do far more to protect the Mayor from self inflicted wounds than any security detail he now has that follows him wherever he goes.
Until Keller gets a handle on his PIOs we can expect the “amatuer hour” to continue on the eleventh floor of city hall.
If no decision has been made on a major policy decision or change of policy, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying just that and having no further comment, until a final decision is made.
It’s called getting your story straight so as to avoid looking incompetent with your decisions and the messaging you want to convey.
It is also called governing and not running for office.