It’s good that Sedgwick County government wants to improve its image and how it communicates. But its biggest problem is not staffing or structure; it’s the commission meetings.
As an Opinion Line comment this week noted: “If County Commissioners Jim Howell, Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau want to fully understand exactly why they have a negative image, perhaps they should watch replays of their televised meetings. Very telling. No communications person can fix that.”
Sedgwick County Manager Michael Scholes recently pushed out the county’s longtime and effective spokeswoman, Kristi Zukovich. Then this week the County Commission approved the creation of a new public information officer position.
Scholes said that county government needs to be better at “telling our story.” Commission Chairman Howell also said that improving the county’s image is his No. 1 priority.
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If the county really wants to improve its image and its “story,” it should start by improving commission meetings.
It’s not uncommon for some commissioners, primarily Ranzau, to cross a professional line during the meeting, aggressively grilling staff and arguing with members of the public who appear before the commission. And though it is valuable to question and not rubber-stamp economic incentives, commissioners shouldn’t treat business leaders as if they were crooks.
Some commissioners also use commission meetings, particularly resolutions and the “legislative issues” and “other” portions of the agenda, as a taxpayer-funded soapbox to rant about national or international politics – whether Obamacare, some alleged United Nations conspiracy or Muslims, as Peterjohn did in an ugly 13-minute diatribe last November.
The other big image problem stems from policy decisions, including pulling out of regional partnerships, reneging on budget agreements and downplaying the importance of public health. Those actions – and not a messaging problem – are why the commission had packed budget hearings last year and why there has been an effort to recall Ranzau.
To his credit, Howell recognizes that the county has an image problem and needs to rebuild relationships with its partners. He got off to a good start this year as chairman by supporting the Greater Wichita Partnership, which is central to the community’s economic development efforts, and by backing a new city-county comprehensive plan.
But the biggest, most immediate improvement he could make is to keep the commission meetings professional and focused on county business.
Leave the political rants to talk show hosts.