Galv. newspaper criticizes lack of info

September 17, 2008 6:40:55 PM PDT
The president and publisher of The Galveston County Daily News has criticized the city's outreach to citizens and media covering the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, saying the lack of information is leading to rumors among residents and speculation that the media clampdown is politically motivated. HURRICANE IKE: Watch live | Breaking news on Ike | Roadway incidents | Interactive tracking | Viewer photos of Ike | Doppler radar | During the storm | After the storm | Hurricane guide

Dolph Tillotson also wrote that the city manager should be in charge during the crisis -- not the mayor.

"The people of Galveston, through their city council, have given Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas enormous emergency powers during the Hurricane Ike crisis. In many ways, she has handled that power admirably," Tillotson wrote in an editorial Tuesday. "However, the city is stumbling badly in its obligation to provide full, accurate and timely information.

"Mayor Thomas has the power to help alleviate the problem, and she has so far failed to recognize even that there is a problem."

Tillotson wrote that the city's emergency management office telephone number frequently goes unanswered and -- when a call does go through -- "information is sketchy or nonexistent."

City Manager Steve LeBlanc said most of the problems with the help line have been technical and that city officials are doing their best to provide the most complete and up-to-date information available.

Tillotson criticized a policy announced Monday that forbade anyone other than LeBlanc or Thomas from responding to media inquiries. He said the resulting lack of information has led to wild rumors about numbers of deaths and landmarks destroyed -- most of it false.

"These kinds of rumors are the price city and Federal Emergency Management Administration officials pay for alienating and ignoring the public and media personnel who are trying to tell the story," Tillotson wrote.

LeBlanc said there was no effort to withhold information and that other city officials were talking to the press.

"What we want to do is make sure we're getting the most complete and accurate information from basically the folks that are running the show," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There's lots of rumors, lots of stuff being said. We want to make sure it comes from one source."

In a follow-up editorial Wednesday, Tillotson said LeBlanc -- not Thomas -- should be in charge.

"The person in charge in an emergency should be the person who has hiring and firing authority over city department heads," Tillotson wrote. "That person is Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc, and Galveston would be better off with LeBlanc clearly established as the man in charge and serving as spokesman for the city."

The mayor's position is unpaid and part-time.

At a stormy city council meeting Wednesday morning, Thomas' emergency powers were extended for a week when a council member walked out of the meeting. The three remaining members did not constitute a quorum.

Tillotson said it appears the city's current focus is two-pronged: ensuring efficiency for those involved in the recovery effort, and attempting to avoid embarrassment for FEMA and the Bush administration.

"What that means is the focus of those in charge of recovery is to get on with the recovery. That's good, and as it should be," Tillotson wrote. "But the other main focus, avoiding embarrassment, leads to disrespect for the news media personnel attempting to cover the story. And it leads officials to be less concerned about the fear and anxiety of those who are away from home than they should be. And it leads them, frankly, to be less than candid."

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