Getting it Wrong: An Open Letter to L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander (and his PLUM committee colleagues)
Dear Councilman Englander:
At the August 23 meeting of the City Council’s PLUM committee, you publicly accused me of putting out false information in the articles I write about billboard and signage issues. Specifically, in asking a city official for clarification of a point under discussion, you said, “Because I want to make sure that when Mr. Hathaway writes about this, since he gets it wrong most of the time, that he hears it clearly.”
I consider this an attack on my personal integrity, because I always strive to be factually accurate and avoid taking things out of context or otherwise trafficking in misinformation. For example, before writing about PLUM committee meetings I almost always listen to the meeting audio, to make sure that I heard things correctly and that I accurately quote committee members and other speakers. I have a definite point of view about the signage issues the PLUM committee deals with, but that doesn’t mean I believe in using less than ethical and honest means to promote that view.
But your accusation was more than just an attack on me, it was an attack on the very idea that L.A. residents are entitled to be fully informed on the issues that affect them, in this case issues of billboard and signage regulation. That’s because the large majority of those residents can’t come to PLUM committee meetings to hear the discussion firsthand. Unlike lobbyists, billboard company representatives, and others who are paid to attend these meetings, most community people can’t take time off work, arrange child care, and make the necessary adjustments needed to attend a weekday meeting at City Hall. So, without someone reporting on the details of those meetings, they are denied the knowledge they need and deserve to form opinions and make decisions about the issues at hand.
I’m not paid, either, but I’m fortunate enough to be at a stage of my life that I can devote a significant amount of time to a cause I consider very important to the mental and physical health of communities throughout L.A. And an important part of that effort is to inform those citizens who want to know what their elected representatives are doing about billboards and signage but don’t have time to attend the many meetings held on the topic or read the many lengthy reports issued at various points in the deliberative process.
Unfortunately, your public statement at the Aug. 24 PLUM committee meeting tells those citizens, in essence, that the information they read online at the BanBillboardBlight website or in CityWatch or hear in public service programs on local radio stations is “wrong most of the time.” Doubly unfortunate is the fact that you didn’t specify a single instance of what you considered wrong, so it’s just an accusation put out there, deliberately or otherwise, to create doubt in some people’s minds that what they’re reading and hearing is factually accurate.
I have been writing articles about PLUM committee actions and deliberations, as well as those of the City Planning Commission and other government agencies, for almost nine years. In that time, not a single billboard company lobbyist or billboard company executive or employee has approached me and said that something I wrote was false. Not a single member of the PLUM committee, present or past, has contacted me to make that complaint. Not a single City Councilmember, not a single city planner or member of the city attorney’s staff or any other city official involved with billboard and signage issues has told me that something I wrote was inaccurate.
You surely understand that people come to meetings and otherwise involve themselves in community affairs, not because they are paid to, but because they believe in a vision of a better community and a better city. Those people deserve the respect and even the encouragement of their elected representatives, regardless of where they happen to stand on a particular project or issue. Those people deserve access to as much information as possible, so that they can make the kind of informed decisions that are in important part of the bedrock of a democratic system.
I hope you will take that into consideration before making unsupported accusations against someone who has volunteered his time and energy to disseminate that information as widely as possible and help make the system work the way it was intended.