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August 10, 2011

An open(ness) letter

Dear Mayor Fischer,

Now that the acrid dust has settled from the demolition of the historic Elmo’s building on East Main and recent controversies surrounding Louisville Metro Animal Services, it’s time to clean up your messy press relations. Thursday, July 21, was a dark day for mayoral credibility. Two news conferences raised troubling questions of truthfulness and transparency.

During the first, spokesman Chris Poynter denied preservationists’ claims that the aforementioned demolition “was the result of a backdoor deal” between the mayor and developer Todd Blue.

“This was not something that was, you know, hidden from the public — was not done out of the public’s view,” Poynter told WHAS-TV.

But records reflect that plans for demolition journeyed surreptitiously through the process as the dark underbelly of a deal to save most of Whiskey Row.

As LEO Weekly reported two weeks ago, “A lengthy May 9 mayoral press release and ceremony omitted the landmark sacrifice.”

The Metro Council was briefed about it, Poynter said. But in a recent Courier-Journal offering, blogger and preservationist Curt Morrison noted its absence from the agenda, minutes, ordinance and video of the May 12 meeting at which it was approved.

The secrecy was obvious, deliberate and disastrous. When the decision was made to go under the radar, a time bomb was set to explode. When it did, Poynter’s denial of the deafening silence preceding the blast only exacerbated the damage.

As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said, “The best way to keep a secret is never to have it.” If there was some clear and convincing case for this secret, it should have been made in lieu of the lie.

On multiple levels, the implications of this monumental precedent are alarming. It’s always a mistake to exclude any impassioned stakeholders from public policy discussions — especially preservationists, who are educated, articulate and engaged citizens as deeply rooted in the history and character of the community as the buildings they seek to protect.

All historic structures outside preservation districts seem less protected now that you’ve shown a willingness to negotiate with owners who would wreck or ransom them as hostages.

The second news conference of July 21 seemed sensational if not over-ripe enough to dwarf coverage of Elmo’s demise. Hot topic: The resignation of Jackie Gulbe, assistant director of Metro Animal Services. For weeks, rumors had been circulating that Gulbe was suspended without pay for allegedly transporting via suitcase an elderly beagle that had bitten her. Poynter kept mum on her suspension but told the media she took accrued vacation leave. The next day, her personnel file surfaced, and the suspension was confirmed.

“Poynter said she was on paid vacation leave unrelated to the event, which is a lie,” local animal rights activist Amy Rock wrote on Facebook. “I know he is just a pawn and doing his job, but I am so sick of people lying.”

The C-J’s Dan Klepal added details previously withheld: “Although suspended without pay, Gulbe didn’t lose any of her salary during her punishment because she was approved for a workers’ compensation claim … ”

The following day, July 23, the political theater got ultra-absurd when Poynter threw Sadiqa Reynolds, your director of community building, under the bus. Forty-eight hours after withholding news of Gulbe’s suspension, Poynter told WDRB’s Bennett Haeberle that Reynolds knew about it when Haeberle asked her on June 15.

Poynter said he couldn’t explain why she declined to confirm it.

I’m no chess master, but I don’t believe the rules permit players to jump teammates.

And these folks aren’t pawns. Poynter is paid $72,000 a year; Reynolds makes $113,000 — tax dollars, by the way.

We may disagree on whether your staffers’ purpose is to serve your political interests, the public interest, or both. But we can concur that they should be professional, disciplined, cooperative and honest.

As CBS’s Bob Schieffer recently opined, “Good policy always trumps bad public relations and the best PR can’t trump
bad policy.”

If transparency remains your policy, then enforce it. Otherwise, hide-and-seek yet again will devolve into dodge ball, bringing more black eyes, bloody noses and fat lips.