Put Your Best Face Forward

Why nothing bad ever happens at City Hall

The Wolves' playoff run was good fun for Hizzoner the Mayor. On two occasions during the series against the Lakers, R.T. Rybak's office sent out press releases; the first one trumpeted an obligatory bet with the mayor of Los Angeles involving walleye.

Then Rybak turned up the volume on his public relations shenanigans with a missive that took TNT basketball commentator Charles Barkley to task. Barkley, the press release noted, had quipped that "the only good thing to come out of Minneapolis was Prince." (Which does not seem to bode well for the rumored Jesse Ventura-Charles Barkley presidential ticket in 2008, does it?) Rybak boasted of offering to accompany Barkley for a night on the town. Didn't happen: "Barkley Wimps Out, Skips Town," teased the headline of the release, which also poked fun at Barkley's girth by offering to take Sir Charles to Old Country Buffet.

The joke fell flat--is anyone certain that Charles Barkley, even now, has ever heard of R.T. Rybak?--but it underscored a deeper reality about the mayor: He is most comfortable when he's doing PR. Since he took office, Rybak has ceaselessly strived toward cheery, respectful consensus, or at least the appearance of same. He embodies the kind of happy-faced white liberalism that still prevails in some corners of the city. His public image gambits have involved promoting an annual cross-country ski race through local streets and challenging the police chief to a donut-eating contest at a local bakery to counteract the opening of a suburban Krispy Kreme franchise.

Who can turn the world on with his smile? R.T. Rybak gets happy
David Fick
Who can turn the world on with his smile? R.T. Rybak gets happy

Within the confines of City Hall, though, Rybak has gained a reputation as someone acutely focused on spin. Rybak, as he often reminds folks, is a former City Hall reporter and alt-weekly publisher. So it's not exactly surprising that he obsesses over his press and has steadily sought to bring the lines of city communications under closer control. He also has an extensive background in marketing, which means he knows a thing or two about putting an organization On Message.

 

During his first months in office, Rybak embraced a report by McKinsey & Company, the consulting group that wrote the business blueprint for Enron. The five-part report mostly focuses on streamlining the city's planning and development departments, but it also pays particular attention to how the city is viewed through a business/consumerist lens. Corporate jargon like "strong customer service skills," "responsibility and accountability," and "strategic goals" are littered throughout.

Many recommendations made by McKinsey in June 2002 were eventually adopted by the city, most notably in a new department of Community Planning and Economic Development. And another striking change emerged: The Department of Communications would have a greater role in shaping the city's affairs.

This policy made a resounding thud in February 2003 when it was leaked that Rybak had suggested that no police officer speak to the media without going through the communications department first. This led to an outcry among the rank and file, and pretty much anyone else interested in free speech and the public's right to know. Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said such a policy could lead to "propaganda." Rybak's press secretary Laura Sether backpedaled a bit, telling me the policy was simply about the "coordinating of communications." It wasn't hard to see the McKinsey effect--a pretense to transparency that was really about information management.

More recently, the notion of coordinated communications has come under fire again, this time regarding the Minneapolis Television Network. In late April, communications director Gail Plewacki, herself a former MPD cop and television reporter hired to oversee the amped-up communications department, told a City Council committee she was looking into folding MTN into her office. As reported last week in the Minneapolis Observer, a fledgling monthly newspaper, Plewacki wants to move MTN, which cablecasts several public access and government channels on Time Warner Cable in Minneapolis, into City Hall to save production costs.

But MTN would also face tighter budget scrutiny if it were overseen by the communications office. (Its current budget of roughly $625,000 is funded through an agreement with Time Warner.) And there is lingering fear that the city will "manage" its programming as well.

"Do we really want City Hall--Gail and the mayor--to decide what gets out to the community?" asks Mark Engebretson, who has been an MTN board member for five years. "Public access has different shows, saying things that could be critical of the mayor. If they're controlling the purse strings, things could be pretty muted." (Plewacki told the Observer that she has no interest in controlling programming.)

While Sether says the mayor has had little to do with the proposal, others around City Hall see the MTN issue as part of a recurring effort by Rybak to cast the city more resolutely in his image. "Absolutely," says council member Gary Schiff. "It's an indication of a kind of control run amuck."

Most reporters in town have received phone calls from the mayor or a city official over something they've written. Earlier this spring, the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder, a weekly newspaper catering to the African American community, ran a three-part series alleging the misuse of Empowerment Zone money by the city. Soon the Spokesman's editors and reporter Chris Thierfelder were being treated to a hostile meeting with Plewacki.

And while it's easy to mark Plewacki as the bogeyman here, it's also true that the tone has been set by the mayor. Rybak admittedly is a great booster for the city, and he does that aspect of his job very well. But it's also true that he's a political novice.

As Rybak's campaign for office kicked into high gear in 2001, his main stump line was that he would "open up the doors of City Hall," and he even went so far as to tote around an oversized air-freshener on the stump. The refrain played up the stench of corruption--and not just perceived, but federally prosecuted--that hovered over the incumbents at City Hall at the time.

Rybak--who has had a host of jobs, ranging from real estate and internet consulting to heading Minneapolis's Downtown Council--is certainly more visible than his predecessor. He has always been remarkably accessible to reporters. But whereas Sharon Sayles Belton rarely seemed to care about her press, Rybak sometimes seems concerned with little else. And perhaps that's only natural for a businessperson turned politician whose livelihood has always depended on putting the right face on things.

 

Suggestions, gripes, and tips should be sent to granderson@citypages.com.

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