Fact or fiction?
Bureaucrats and elected leaders at City Hall in Kansas City aim to clearly separate one from the other with a brand new addition to the kcmo.gov website.
The purpose of the Rumor Page is to “dispel rumors and correct misinformation,” especially important at a time when rumors can fly as fast as punching “send” on a smartphone.
But barely two weeks after it went online, the Rumor Page is already being accused of spouting propaganda.
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“They’re misrepresenting the facts and misleading the public,” said transit advocate Janet Rogers, citing a response about transportation funding. More on that later.
In these first days of the page, she is the most vocal of some who accuse the city of spinning in this supposedly no-spin zone — which the city’s chief spokesman, Chris Hernandez, says is unfair criticism.
The Rumor Page does not shade the truth, he says, but rather is aimed at providing taxpayers with a trustworthy foundation on which to debate the issues.
Which is sure to please the likes of Mayor Sly James, who at a budget hearing last month unloaded on taxpayers who traffic in half truths.
“We’re grateful the page is there,” said James’ press secretary, Michael Grimaldi. “While started during budget hearings, I expect it will be an important communication channel going forward.”
Local governments aren’t exactly shy when it comes to getting out the facts as they see them. Through news releases, newsletters and email blasts, cities, counties and school districts regularly reach out to taxpayers who may or may not keep current through the news media.
But in an age when information and misinformation is shared instantly on social media without filters, it can be a challenge to correct the record before falsehoods take root.
There’s Twitter. But tweets, while immediately out there, are easily missed. There’s Facebook, but many government pages aren’t always up to date and it’s not always easy to find the information you’re looking for on them.
Kansas City’s answer was to copy a model that has worked well elsewhere. Early this month, it set up a one-stop destination for the truth. Or the city’s version of it, anyway.
“We don’t think it’s spin,” Hernandez said. “Our point with the Rumor Page is to put up carefully vetted, factual information.”
Kansas City officials got the idea from the city of Glendale, Calif.
Tom Lorenz is the top PR guy there. A Glendale cop for 30 years, he believes strongly that policy discussion be evidence-based. But too often, people today make judgments based on unverified stuff they read on the Internet.
“We’re fraught with misinformation in government,” he said.
Be it a matter of simple error or malicious lies spread by trolls, falsehoods spread fast and can have serious consequences, he said.
Such as the time a newspaper website mistakenly reported that Glendale was ticketing homeowners who let their grass turn brown during a drought. In fact, it was another town with a similar name.
“The problem was, the city manager was getting hate mail,” Lorenz said.
Then there was the time a City Council candidate told voters that the city’s pension fund obligations were underfunded by 80 percent, when in fact it was just the opposite. Eighty percent of the money needed for pensions had been set aside.
“So we called him out,” Lorenz said.
In both cases, the correct information was posted on that city’s Rumor Page, which Lorenz said is one of the top 10 pages viewed on the Glendale city website.
Kansas City officials began considering something similar after someone in the city manager’s office heard Lorenz give a talk last September at a national conference.
“We kicked it around a little bit,” Hernandez said.
But the decision to launch came only after budget discussions heated up.
More two hours into a public hearing on Feb. 28, Kansas City’s mayor scolded critics for not having all the facts about spending proposals.
“There was a lot of stuff that was said in here that was dead, flat-out wrong,” James said.
Four days later, the Rumor Page went online.
At the outset, it addressed four budget issues. The response to one of them irked Rogers.
At issue was a city ordinance that, minus some deductions, guarantees the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority 95 percent of the proceeds from a half-cent transportation sales tax.
Rogers maintains that the city shorted the transportation authority by at least $4 million this year and has been underfunding the ATA for years.
The Rumor Page said, in effect, baloney.
The notion that the ATA is not getting all the money owed it under the law is among “many misperceptions regarding Ordinance 130796, which helps fund the KCATA,” the Rumor Page said. It then went on to explain that the city bases those payments on the estimated proceeds from the tax.
However, anyone reading that ordinance, Rogers said, would see that the payments are to be based on the proceeds, as in all the money received. The term “estimated proceeds” appears nowhere in that ordinance.
“They’re muddying the waters,” Rogers said.
Hernandez could not explain the reason the word “estimated” was inserted into the Rumor Page explanation when it doesn’t appear in the ordinance.
In the end, the city and transit advocates remain divided on whether the ATA is being fully funded.
The best way to build credibility on a site like the one Kansas City started, Lorenz said, is to back up the facts with source documents.
On Glendale’s page, Lorenz and his staff add links to the initial rumor, whenever possible, and then provide hyperlinks to the documents that support the facts.
“Do not post anything without having a link,” he said. “We do not get into opinions.”
Of the eight topics addressed on the Kansas City page as of Friday morning, only two were linked to background documents.
Hernandez hopes to add more source documents in the future so taxpayers can see the confirmation for the city’s explanations.
“We’re going to make is as transparent as possible,” he said.
But if you want to find the Rumor Page, you’ll need to search for it or know the address, which is kcmo.gov/rumorpage.