Public Safety Commissioner Criticizes City’s COVID Communications Efforts

Lack of clarification and infrequent messaging leads to a questioning of transparency and competence in the City’s communication with citizens

PHOTO: Ben Tansey | News | Public Safety Commissioners as they appeared during Monday’s teleconference. Voting on a motion are, from top to bottom and left to right, Chairman Jeremy Ding, Commissioner Stephanie Cao, Commissioner Grace Liu Kung, Third District City Council Liaison Dr. Richard Schneider, and Commissioners Ed Donnelly, Amin Al-Sarraf and Alan Ehrlich

Public Safety Commissioner Alan Ehrlich on Monday complained at length about the city’s approach to communicating with citizens about its COVID-19 crisis activities and its treatment of the PSC. The city defended its treatment of the Commission, noting it’s been busy resetting operations due to the crisis.

Fire Chief Paul Riddle noted the city activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at “level 3” status, meaning it is not manned 24/7. He said there is a firm line of communication between the police and fire departments and with the county. Communications with the city’s businesses are coordinated through the city’s public information officer and the Chamber of Commerce.

The extent of the city’s distribution of COVID-related information has been a sore point for some citizens who believe the city’s website and social media rely too heavily on data provided by the county and state.

- Advertisement -

Their concerns were amply represented by Ehrlich, who offered a lengthy review that he said showed the number of COVID-related communications the city has made with its citizens is dwarfed by those the South Pasadena Unified School District has made with parents. Where the city has spent $100,000 on PR and crisis communication consultants like SAE Communications, the SPUSD doesn’t even have a public information officer.

He said the city could be doing much more to communicate with regular and hard-to-reach citizens such as those whose principal language is not English, who are disabled and/or in poverty, and could do so easily by using address and email lists already in its possession.

Ehrlich complained about the city’s lack of response to multiple requests from PSC commissioners for an emergency meeting after the Council’s March 4 emergency declaration; a sense the city has repeatedly side-stepped the PSC; Councilwoman Marina Khubesrian’s suggestion that the PSC needn’t have been consulted on the establishment of a Traffic Bureau; and other grievances.

“Public Safety commissioners have expressed to staff, City Council members and the City Manager that we believe the city is not doing the best possible job at communicating to our residents about what OUR city is doing and how OUR city is responding to the corona virus emergency,” he concluded.

In December 2018, as Chief Riddle updated the City Council on the progress of the EOC remodel, then Councilman Robert Joe asked if the city was tied into the School District system to reach parents. Riddle said no. Joe also wanted to know if the city had a way of communicating with all citizens. Riddle said “we have all the platforms in place” but conceded some require citizens to actively subscribe.

“Our ability to communicate as a city was identified as a very important component” to the EOC remodel, Riddle told the Council, a sentiment he expressed repeatedly. The EOC would enable the city to get information, communicate effectively with local state and federal agencies and “give us the best opportunity to be able to provide information back out to our community.”

The city was also working on an Emergency Public Information Plan (EPIP), “the goal being able to effectively communicate with our citizens during an event or disaster and provide them information as to what instructions and what they should be doing, and what the city is doing to recover from the incident.”

During the same meeting, former city spokesman John Pope made a presentation on the EPIP, noting it is an annex of city’s Emergency Operations Plan. Neither document shows up under those names using the city website’s search utility. However the EPIP can be found starting on the 423rd page of the document linked here.

PSC Chairman Jeremy Ding told the South Pasadena News the EPIP never came before the commission.

“We use the Emergency Public Information Plan developed in late 2018 as a working guide for communication efforts during COVID-19,” city spokeswoman Rachel McGuire told the South Pasadenan News. She indicated the 173-page plan was a product of the city’s previous contract with SAE Communications, though “the current SAE contract has not been used for COVID-19.”

McGuire also said the city’s Emergency Alert System, Blackboard Connect, Nixle and Wireless Emergency Alert platforms are all functioning, though to date none have been used as part of the city’s COVID response.

As for the treatment of the PSC, she said the city prioritized social distancing and sanitary protocols after the crisis began, including setting things up so employees could work from home and still provide services, all of which required significant staff time. This included the arrangements to enable virtual meeting capability.

“Once the platform was selected, the PSC was the first virtual community meeting to be scheduled, even prior to the City Council” she noted.


Ben Tansey
Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.