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Stroger administration hunkers down against press

Sunday, July 06, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Besieged with negative press over a record-breaking $426 million sales tax increase, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's administration is forbidding department heads from speaking with the media unless his spokesman is present - an apparent effort to improve the news coverage of his administration.

Although the policy has been around for some time - some officials say it began under former chief of staff Lance Tyson - it is being reemphasized amid bad publicity from the tax hike, which took effect July 1.

Examples of the policy in action include:

June 24: County budget director Jarese Wilson, moments after publicly acknowledging her department had yet to produce a finished 2008 budget halfway into the budget year, refused to discuss the matter, citing the policy and the absence of the spokesman, Eugene Mullins.

"I have procedures and policies to follow," apologized Wilson, who has routinely spoken to reporters about such everyday budget matters before.

Moments later, county Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings, who some say is a key in setting Stroger administration strategy, acknowledged the existence of the policy.

June 20: A receptionist for Rupert Graham, the head of the highway department, wouldn't even let a reporter pose a question to Graham, referring him instead to Mullins. The question was fairly simple, an inquiry into how much salt the highway department had loaned out to the North and Northwest suburbs during the past winter. Such salt-sharing was an example Todd Stroger himself put forth at a public forum in Palatine on June 16 as an example of what the county does for suburbanites.

A call was placed to Mullins, who never provided the answer.

Despite these instances, Mullins on June 24 denied such a policy existed - just hours after his superior, Dunnings, had acknowledged it.

Ironically, clamping down on talking to the media comes at a time when Mullins has publicly complained Stroger can't get his message out to the public because of a media bias.

Because Mullins refused to acknowledge the policy, he could not be asked the rationale for the policy or what it hopes to accomplish.

A Stroger critic, county Commissioner Democrat Michael Quigley, said sometimes it helps to make sure everyone in an administration is on the same page so that all employees put forth the president's message rather than disparate individual opinions. But clamping down altogether makes no sense, he said.

"If you put people you trust - competent people - in place, you should trust them to talk to the press, because not everything can go through one person," Quigley sai.

"It's just foolhardy to try and control it in this vein. - It's sort of a variation of their bunker mentality," he said.

And what did the information conduit have to say about the policy for this story?

Mullins did not answer messages left on his county phone Thursday, and his cell phone message box was full. He also did not respond to an e-mail.

But Chris Geovanis, another county spokesman, said there may be some confusion about the policy.

"It's not a question of a standing policy that press calls must be cleared through Gene Mullins," said Geovanis. "It's rather the request that ... managers make sure this office is informed and given an opportunity to collaborate. That said, we know we need to do a better job in responding to press calls and requests, and we're committed to doing that."

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