Wednesday, July 09, 2008

San Antonio Express-News Playground Barrage Has Affect

As described in my last post, the San Antonio Express-News took on the city by investigating the status of city parks, their disrepair and unethical treatment of the city auditor. To date I have counted multiple articles by Todd Bensman (whose first story got the ball rolling, 6/9, 6/12 and 6/13) and Guillermo Garcia (6/22, 6/24) along with columns by Cary Clack (6/10), Jaime Castillo (6/10, 6/15), editor Bob Rivard (6/15), Ken Rodriguez (6/16, 6/20), Scott Stroud (6/28), public editor Bob Richter and the editorial board (6/19). Fourteen stories so far in one month. (Some of the articles are only available through the Express-News online archives.)

And with good reason. City leaders seemed to be much more concerned about looking good than about making sure that our children are taken care of. Though it is true, they were operating on information provided by the parks director, who turned out to be lying.

So, it took the city manager 28 days to speak up clearly. But there were some steps the city took leading up to that.

Three days after the first story hit, the city manager and the mayor announced that all 114 of the city’s playgrounds would be re-inspected.

Twelve days later, the parks and recreation department director was forced to resign. (Director of parks is forced to resign, 6/22)

Sixteen days later, a city council committee was set up to clarify the role of the auditor’s office and presumably how to keep it from being influenced by political interests. (Panel will examine post of city auditor, 6/24)

And finally, 28 days later, city manager Sheryl Sculley provided her own op ed with the opening line: “The safety of our children is a priority of the city of San Antonio.” She provided a summary of results from the inspections promised after the first story and gave a deadline for when repairs would be completed. She also pointed out that inspections did not categorize any playgrounds as dangerous. Finally, she stated that a long-term maintenance plan would be submitted to the council and that an analysis of the parks department service delivery was underway.

This case study is far from closed. There will be debates about the auditor’s office. There will be further checking into the status of playground repairs. I wouldn’t surprised if a lawyer somewhere is able to find a child who was injured on one of the dangerous playgrounds identified in the 2003 inspection. Wouldn’t you?

I’m curious about the role – if any – the city’s public relations staff played in this whole affair. I’d like to believe that they gave appropriate counsel and weren’t listened to. It’s also possible they weren’t involved at all. Perhaps some effective crisis communications training is in order for city leader staff.

photo credit: Jerry Lara/Express-News

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