After the May 1 gun rights rally at Salem's Riverfront Park where the Proud Boys provided insecurity by intimidating citizens, who included a journalist, I submitted several public record requests to the City of Salem.
One sought information regarding how it was that up until April 30, the city web site said permits would be required for events in parks beginning May 1, yet the gun rally didn't have a permit.
Another requested documents about communications regarding the gun rally between City Manager Steve Powers, Police Chief Trevor Womack, and Public Works Director Peter Fernandez.
In the end I learned as much about the frustrating way the City of Salem handles public records requests -- or at least these requests -- as I did about the substance of those requests. But I'm going to describe those frustrations in a separate blog post.
I do need to mention that I never did learn some of what I asked for.
As I described in "Typogate" adds a twist to Proud Boys gun rally, at some point between late 2020 and late March 2021, the City of Salem "Reserve a City Facility or Park" web page changed from saying "Due to COVID-19, parks and other City facilities are not available for reservation" to "Due to COVID-19, parks and other city facilities are not available for reservation through April 30, 2021. Reservations are being accepted for outdoor events in parks occurring May 1, 2021 or after."
I'd asked for documents concerning who authorized and made the change to the page saying that reservations were being accepted for events on May 1 and after. I never got any, which leaves unsettled the question of how the page came to say this.
At first city officials said this was a typo, with a "3" being left out of May 1, which would have made it May 31. But this doesn't explain the statement that "parks and other city facilities are not available for reservation through April 30, 2021," with April clearly not being a typo.
On May 10, City Councilor Tom Andersen asked City Manager Powers to explain the confusion about why the city web site said permits were required as of May 1. Suspicions were raised when, after numerous citizens asked city officials why the gun rally didn't need to have a permit, the web page in question was changed on April 30, a day before the gun rally, to say that permits were being required as of May 31.
Powers said, "That web page, that section of the web page that’s been referred to, it was incorrect and frankly also poorly worded before it was corrected." I was hoping for a better explanation, as I said in "City Manager gives poor excuse for permitless Proud Boys rally."
However, I asked for park reservation requests for events occurring between March 27 and April 30, 2021. Twenty-five reservations were accepted for this period, but almost all of them were for the use of athletic facilities (one was for a farmer's market).
So even though city officials weren't as open and transparent as they should have been regarding the web site error, it's true that no events in Salem parks were being scheduled prior to May 31, even though for more than two months the web site said something different.
My conclusion is that the City of Salem is less like a smoothly functioning machine and more like a creaky collection of flawed human parts that sometimes gets things right, and sometimes gets things wrong, yet almost always tries to put forward a public face of correctness.
This doesn't mean that willful self-serving actions by city staff at odds with the public interest don't occur -- they surely do -- just that disorganization and a fervent desire to appear competent often better explain WTF? reactions by citizens to staff behavior.
I got lots of documents peripherally related to my public records request for communications between the City Manager, Police Chief, and Public Works Director. Many, if not most, were public relations attempts by city officials to justify their response to the Proud Boys gun rally.
Since as mentioned above, several citizens were intimidated and threatened by armed Proud Boys, with no Salem police in the immediate area of the gun rally, one would think that Police Chief Womack and City Manager Powers might have said something like "We could have handled the police response to the gun rally better and will be letting you know how we're going to learn from this experience and improve our response to future similar events."
All that said, here comes the promised surprise conclusion in the title of this post.
Which is on a blog called Salem Political Snark. Sure, I came up with that name when the Mayor, City Council, and City Manager were considerably more conservative than is the case now, and thus more deserving of snarkiness given my progressive leaning.
However, I'm still prone to suspect that city officials in Salem deserve criticism, in part because almost all of my previous public record requests have revealed that what those officials say in public doesn't always match up with what is happening behind the scenes.
In this case, though, I read through the documents I got with a surprising degree of Buddha-like compassion.
Not that I have much of that sort of compassion, despite my fondness for Buddhist philosophy. What surprised me was the extra feeling of compassion I had after perusing those documents, since before I'd gotten more irritated after reviewing public City of Salem documents, not less.
What struck me is something I alluded to above. By and large, City staff are hard-working, competent, pleasant people who are trying to do the best job they can. Yes, they're flawed. So are we all. Perfection isn't an attainable human quality. As I remember my 4th grade teacher, Eleanor Marshall, saying to us students: "Do your best. Angels can do no better."
Somehow a miscommunication or some other sort of error resulted in the city web page saying permits were required as of May 1. I was told that requests for web site changes sometimes happen verbally, so this could explain why I didn't get any records relating to who authorized or made the May 1 wording.
Regardless, mistakes happen.
I felt like I needed to learn more about how the web site changed from a May 1 date when park permits were required to a May 31 date. It appears that city staff gave me as much information as possible about this, even though I didn't get all that I asked for.
Some of the documents I got pertained to the public record requests I submitted. (I paid for one of them; I got a fee waiver for the other request, which was appreciated.) I realize that responding to public record requests isn't a favorite activity of city staff, since this takes time away from their other duties.
Thus I'm grateful for the information that I received. As noted above, I'll write another blog post about the problems I had with the public record requests, including some ideas for improvements in this area.
One key thing I want to say to officials at the City of Salem is this:
Don't worry about not being perfect. Worry about creating a climate where all city employees are rewarded for admitting mistakes and finding ways to do better. Like most organizations, I see the City of Salem as being overly concerned with managing public relations instead of being open with the public when errors were made.
People can recognize the difference between spin and sincerity. Less spin and more sincerity, please.