Sharon Ullman

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sharon Ullman and the Media, Part III

Posted By on Thu, Feb 19, 2009 at 12:02 PM

As we reported here, Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman -- despite her open government stance -- doesn't have the most media-friendly policies in the world. But she has clarified her media policies since our first post. She said that she'll interact with the media in the following ways:
  • She'll do live, unedited TV and radio interviews, and long-form programs like Viewpoint. That, of course, leaves Boise Weekly and all other newspapers, as well as a large percentage of TV and radio programs, out in the cold.

  • She'll answer questions left on her blog. It's not a bad option -- if you're not worried about getting scooped.

  • She'll answer questions on the record at public meetings.

I was surprised by the last one. I've sat in on a lot of public meetings, and reporters asking questions was always discouraged. So I decided to give it a try. I went to a budget meeting the commissioners were holding today, hoping to get a chance to ask a question near the end.

As the commissioners were wrapping up the segment on the budget, Commissioner Ullman spoke up. "I'd like to point out that we have a reporter in the room, and I wondered if she has any questions?" she asked.

"This is not a public hearing," Commission Chairman Fred Tilman said.

A public hearing, according to Ada County spokesman Rich Wright, is the only type of commission meeting where the public can testify. I was at a public meeting, which just means the public can sit in and listen. Until I got there, I wasn't too clear on which type of meeting the budget meeting was since the agendas posted online aren't labeled "hearing" or "meeting."

Commissioner Ullman persisted and persuaded Commissioner Tilman to at least hear what my question was regarding. (She was really quite nice about it.) When I told him the topic, he said, "We're not discussing that today."

"Will you be discussing it on Tuesday?" I asked, believing Tuesday to be the date of one of the next public hearings.

"Check the agenda," he said. As of this writing, the agendas for next week have not been posted yet.

Chairman Tilman is willing to do interviews with the media outside of meetings, according to Rich Wright. But during meetings, Wright explained, it's his prerogative to not allow reporters to ask questions unless it's a hearing, and to ensure that only questions regarding the topic at hand are asked and answered. Commissioner Ullman, meanwhile, won't talk to newspaper reporters unless it's at a public hearing, or on her blog. Between these two policies, if you want to ask Ullman something and you don't want to run the risk of news competitors seeing your questions and answers on her blog and scooping you, you have to hope for a public hearing where the commission will be talking about what you want to ask about.

It's kind of a limiting format, and there are a whole range of news topics that might never see the light of day if they aren't on the commissioners' agenda.

But points for effort, Commissioner Ullman. Points for effort.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Commissioner is catching on

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2009 at 9:52 PM

Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman noticed our efforts to report on county business on her new blog, which is called:


In the post, Ullman's seventh blog entry since taking office, she alludes to the media catching on. citydesk is not sure what we're catching on to besides her continued efforts to evade questions. Here's the part on her evasion of BW watchdog Lora Volkert:
I’d like to commend Boise Weekly reporter Lora Volkert for attending several of our meetings this morning. She requested I answer questions for her, either in person or in writing; however, I refer her back to my first blog post [here] with regard to my media policy. Direct communication with the public, rather than through interpretation of a reporter, will provide you the best opportunity to get the real story of what is going on in Ada County government.
Have any readers out there tried to contact Ullman "directly"? If so, did she answer your questions?

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ullman: Still no comment

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2009 at 5:24 PM

Though Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman has talked a lot about open government, her responsiveness to reporters during her campaign and even after her victory in November does not exactly jive with openess.

Ullman said in last year's Idaho Statesman voter guide that she thinks using tax dollars to pay for PR staff is wasteful because, "Elected officials should speak for themselves." So I was surprised to confirm this morning that her personal media policy is "no comment." Ever. Period.

Ullman has her own blog now, and a post she did on an Allied Waste garbage hauling contract entitled, "It's a stinky problem," caught my eye. The contract was about to expire, and Ullman wanted to put it out for bid. It sounds like routine business, but for Ullman and a handful of her readers who are angry about the county's current trash service, it's a big deal.

The problem? "According to the Landfill Director and the trash hauler’s representatives, if we do put the contract out for bid, they say that rates will increase more than they will if we simply extend the contract for another ten years," Ullman wrote. "To me, this sounds like extortion: give it to us, or we’ll jack up your prices."

I called Ullman and left her a message, asking if they had decided anything about the contract yet. Ada County spokesman Rich Wright returned my call and told me that Commissioner Ullman doesn't talk to the media and would only interact with me by using him as an intermediary.

BW touched on Ullman's new media strategy last December, but I interpreted her comments to mean that she wouldn't run to the press with disagreements she had with her fellow commissioners. That's a far cry from refusing to talk to the media altogether.

This isn't Ada County's media policy, Wright hastened to add. If I liked, he could set up an interview for me with Commissioners Fred Tilman or Rick Yzaguirre. Commissioner Ullman believes media should show up to public meetings and hear what she has to say there, Wright said. I pointed out to him that I didn't think that gave reporters any opportunity to ask questions. He said I should consider showing up for a meeting and try to ask her about that.

So I did. Today the Ada County Commissioners had a business meeting, and one detail of the Allied Waste contract was on the agenda. I showed up to hear what they had to say. The issue was tabled for two weeks until the Commission decides whether to put the contract up for bid or not. During a brief recess, I got up to talk to her, hoping to ask her why she felt so strongly about the contract and whether she'd ever received a satisfactory answer as to why it would cost more to put the contract up for bid.

But Ullman left the room before I could say a word to her. When she got back, I asked her if I could speak to her for a moment. She said no, informing me that the meeting was about to start again. The meeting started and the commissioners went into executive session, so I had to leave. I asked if I could talk to them afterward, and Tilman said I should talk to Wright. I went to Wright's office and asked if he could arrange for me to talk to Ullman after the executive session was over. He took in a note to her, then came back to inform me that she had respectfully denied my request.

"Commissioner Ullman is very adamant about not doing one-on-one media interviews," Wright told me. He reiterated that it was her decision and that he had no say in it.

"So how does this work?" I asked him. "Do I ask you questions, and you relay them on to her?" 

Wright said he didn't know. I was the first reporter to end up in this situation since the election. But he was happy to pass my questions on to her. I told him my questions about the Allied Waste contract, and also asked him to ask her how she reconciles her media policy with her view that elected officials should speak for themselves.

This afternoon, Wright e-mailed me:
"Great talking with you this morning. I forwarded your questions to Commissioner Ullman and she said she didn’t intend to provide any further comment until the Board took action on the Allied contract. She mentioned something about posting a new entry to her blog… Maybe check that out to see if she provides any new insight there???? That’s the best I can do at this point. I’ll keep you posted as things develop with the Allied contract. If you’d like more sit-down time with one of the other Commissioners I can help arrange that."
It's great that Commissioner Ullman blogs so she can communicate directly with constituents. But I doubt her blog has enough readership for her to inform the whole community about what's going on in the Ada County Commission. Citizens have a right to know what their government representatives are doing, and a lot of Ada County residents depend on traditional media to stay informed about local government.

So it seems strange for someone who bills herself as a champion of open government to steadfastly refuse to take questions from the press.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The cCommission Edition

Posted By on Wed, Oct 22, 2008 at 2:46 PM

This afternoon, the City Club held a forum for County Commission candidates in Districts 1 and 2. Paul Woods (D), Sharon Ullman (R), Rick Yzaguirre (R) and David Langhorst (D) fielded questions from Jim Weatherby about issues like land use, property taxes, open spaces and planned community development.

The banquet room at the Grove Hotel was packed with concerned citizens and cheap lunch aficionados, alike. Highlights of the forum included: Ullman and Langhorst speaking out against the "at will" personnel system passed by the last commission; Woods clarifying the commissions’ budget and recent money-saving cuts; and Langhorst indicting the “unfettered development” allowed under past commissions.

In other county commission news: BW’s Teresa Shipley trekked out to incumbent Woods’ and challenger Ullman’s neighborhoods to profile the District 1 race for today’s issue. Though Ullman declined an interview at her home, Wood’s spoke with Shipley from his Foothills house north of Hill road about hiking, mountain biking, beer and his fight to protect open spaces.

Check back in next week's BW for a profile of the Yzaguirre/Langhorst race with insights into the two candidates and the places they call home.

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