Tuesday, January 27, 2004

"Only The Best"

Agency staff is taught to be vague in writings the public might see.

By Garrett Therolf

The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, urged to reform its relationship with the public in the wake of deception and possible ethical lapses last year, has defied its critics by pulling an even thicker veil of secrecy over itself.

More business has moved out of public meetings to behind closed doors, including presentations and deliberations related to lucrative contracts for engineering and public affairs work.

The communications strategy has also helped to obfuscate the commission's affairs with the hiring of two media consultants who trained nine senior staffers how to duck tough questions, in part by gathering them around a videotape monitor twice to study Hillary Clinton's ''blocking'' techniques during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Bridge commission staffers also were ordered to use vague language in any writing they prepare in case those documents are seen by outsiders.

That order, obtained by The Morning Call, advises staffers and frequent bridge commission contractors against using about 60 common words and phrases, including ''must,'' ''thorough,'' ''final'' and ''safe.''

Chief Engineer George Alexandridis explained the reason for the ban in a preface to the memo: ''Because documents that are prepare by us or our consultants are scrutinized carefully by other agencies, the public and the media, it is important that they do not include absolutes and positive statements.''

In a statement prepared last week, the bridge commission said it has placed ''heightened emphasis'' on public communications, citing its issuance of news releases, meeting with citizens and a customer-friendly Web site.

The controversial agency operates seven toll bridges and 13 free bridges over the Delaware River from Bucks County to the New York state line. The agency infuriated motorists when tolls were raised by up to 400 percent in the fall of 2002 — a hike partially rolled back after it was learned that some of the publicized needs for the increase were misrepresented.

The Morning Call reported in June that Executive Director Frank G. McCartney set in place plans to spend $278 million collected over 10 years for secret economic development projects, while telling the public that much of the money was needed to pay for terrorism insurance.

The paper also reported last year on several instances in which McCartney and commissioners accepted financial favors from firms seeking commission business — a practice prohibited under New Jersey law.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey subsequently joined a chorus of motorists and public officials calling for a new willingness at the agency to make its affairs accessible to the public.

Unlike most government bodies, no law requires the commission to open its affairs to the public, and it releases information at its own discretion.

Private meetings

Commissioner Robin Wiessmann, who leads the Pennsylvania delegation installed by Rendell last year, promised to make the agency more transparent, instituting a brief report of commission affairs at the start of monthly meetings.

''The executive director's report is a practice that is a new and, dare I say, improved practice,'' Wiessmann said in September.

However, Wiessmann also participated late last year in multiple private meetings to hear contractor presentations and deliberate which contractor should receive contracts ranging from advertising to engineering work. These presentations and deliberations were traditionally reserved for public session.

Behind the scenes, longtime staffers who run the agency day to day had already begun to implement the new secrecy practices.

On March 17, 2003, and again on July 17, public relations experts with experience in crisis management arrived at the commission's headquarters in Morrisville, Bucks County.

They presented to the nine most senior executives how to salve the damage of bad publicity and avoid future reports by clamping down on information released to the public.

Patellen Corr and Jennifer Franklin taught a technique they called ''blocking and bridging,'' Corr said in an interview.

The technique teaches public officials ways to block tough questions and to bridge to topics that the official would rather talk about.

''The intent of that technique is that, especially in instances of legal implication, that questions are answered without job security or something like that being put on the line,'' Corr said.

Hillary's sidestep

To demonstrate the technique, the executives scrutinized a tape of Hillary Clinton's January 1998 interview on NBC's ''Today Show'' shortly after news of the Lewinsky affair was first reported in The Washington Post.

The interview began with anchor Matt Lauer asking Hillary Clinton if President Clinton had described to her the nature of his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton responded by changing the subject to the then-recent death of co-anchor Katie Couric's husband and issued her condolences — a pivot identified as the ''block'' during Corr and Franklin's training.

Clinton then said, ''Well, have talked at great length. And I think as this matter unfolds, the entire country will have more information'' — identified during the session as a ''bridge'' to more comfortable terrain without answering the question directly or completely.

Corr said the condolences for Couric are the example of a useful interview technique because ''that is showing how someone can start an interview that will probably be hostile, making sure that potential hostility does not let anyone forget that they are human.''

State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, who has reviewed the course materials for the training, said, ''Well it wouldn't be the first or last time people have been taught how to duck the question.''

McCartney, who participated in the training, authorized the two sessions with Corr and Franklin at a cost of $5,398.

They were arranged through the commission's public affairs consultant, the Harrisburg-based Bravo Group, which was paid about $500,000 during the bridge commission's crisis last year. The fees covered public relations services, advertising and other costs, according to a report provided by the commission.

'Do not use' list

In November Alexandridis issued his memo prohibiting the use of commonly used words and phrases.

The memo was sent to staffers at the commission and staffers at firms that often do contract work for the commission.

The ban would apply to letters, e-mails, contract proposals and other documents produced by the memo's recipients.

In some cases, alternatives are proposed for the prohibited words. For example, don't use ''obvious.'' Use ''apparent'' instead, the memo says. Staffers also are directed not to use the phrase ''only the best.'' Instead, they are told to use ''Staff selected will be appropriate for the work assigned.''

Read the Whole Story at The Morning Call

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