Proactive communication helps keep residents informed

This weekend, Minot Daily News enjoyed a visit from City of Minot administrators and staff. The subject was the 2018 proposed working budget. Their objective was to explain the lengthy document and to answer questions. To be clear, it was informational and not a lobbying effort. In fact, it was left to a representative team from our editorial board to ask the questions that took us into areas that might be considered controversial at one point of the process ahead.

The meeting went very well and the administrators were extremely candid, extremely knowledgeable and well-prepared.

Minot Daily News has already shared some of the news we learned from the meeting and will continue to in the context of covering and analyzing the city budget and the path to approving one.

The point of today’s column isn’t the content of the meeting.

Instead, the point is that the meeting – initiated by the city administration – is an example of exactly how it should work with government (or other large institutions or those in the public eye) and the relationship with media. Whether a local government entity during budget season or in launching a major project, or a private sector interest about to do something that will affect the community, it’s smart practice to meet with local media, provide as much and as accurate information as possible, and answer questions. It opens lines of communications in situations in which the entity is going to be covered by the media, helps get accurate information to the public, and provides transparency. Institutions that impact people’s lives that operate outside the public eye (of which media is a part) has not, historically, ended well. For anyone.

Most government entities in the region and state are very adept at dealing with media – even some newsrooms where said entities suspect they will face tough questions. Over time, this leads to strong, productive relationships that are often long term. I have been amazed at how many state agency heads stop by the office and have known my staff members for decades. These kinds of relationships have to be managed for ethical reasons, but they are essentially positive for everyone involved and for the public.

Now, some longtime readers might think this reality conflicts with what I have written previously about the sacrifices journalists have to make befriending people on whom they have to report. That would be a misconception, however.

For one thing, agency representatives aren’t representing themselves and their roles and goals are entirely transparent, generally.

Secondly, and most importantly at the local level, is that administrators are professionals and not politicians. Professionals have clear goals and roles as well. Elected officials have far more complicated and nuanced goals and agendas. It is what it is.

For those who think of administrators, like a city manager, as comparable to an alderman or council member, instead think of it in terms of a city as being a ship. The elected officials set the course and then the professionals sail the ship where directed. If the destination is awful, it isn’t the helmsman’s fault.

Years and many miles ago, I was a news editor in a city where politics was old-school dirty and rough. On any given day, half the local officials would duck down an alley to avoid me on the street, or dump a mojito over my head if in a bistro. Then, that weekend I would be laughing about it over cigars and tapas beside the city manager’s pool with city staff.

That might not be typical, but it does illustrate the difference between relations media members can have with elected officials and those with professionals. It isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It’s just what can happen when people both clearly understand others’ role and goals – and, importantly, when there is mutual respect. It all starts with the latter.

Minot’s administration is doing a good job communicating through the budget process.

The story of the budget itself, however, continues.