Did Kansas City manager tell staff to lie to the public? If so, that’s a huge problem

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Chris Hernandez, who once ran the communications office at City Hall, has filed a civil lawsuit alleging Kansas City Manager Brian Platt wanted to lie to the media earlier this year.

“Why can’t we just lie to the media?” Platt allegedly asked Hernandez, in a meeting. “In Jersey we had a mayor who would just make up numbers on the fly, from the podium.” Platt is the former city manager of Jersey City, New Jersey.

The lawsuit also alleges Platt was concerned with a Kansas City Star story in May, which used city-provided figures to show a projected decline in pothole repairs. Hernandez claims Platt pressured him and other staffers to call the newspaper and argue the figures were wrong.

They weren’t.

These allegations, and others in the lawsuit, are not yet proven fact. They’ll have to be established in a court of law, if the case goes to trial. Hernandez says he was demoted because of his resistance to Platt’s communication strategies, and he is suing for damages under Missouri’s whistleblower statute.

In a statement, the city manager’s office did not respond directly to the allegations. “As an institution committed to transparency,” the office said, “the city stands by any statements and welcomes inspection of any facts related to our transformative work to have already resurfaced 387 lane miles of roadway this fiscal year — substantially exceeding our resurfacing efforts in each of the past five years.”

Kansas Citians should be absolutely clear: Any public official who believes miscommunication and lies are an acceptable approach to policy-making should rethink his or her approach, and career choice.

It is not news that public officials try to portray their work in the best possible light, and sometimes shade reality, by either omitting relevant facts or misrepresenting them. It’s a reporter’s job to understand this phenomenon and respond to it — by checking statements against public records, previous claims, their own observations and others’.

Our reporter did that in the pothole story. Our reporters do it every day. Citizens can do it too. It often upsets elected and appointed officials, but that’s too bad. The public has an absolute right to know what is being done in its name.

Here, though, Platt isn’t accused of spin. He’s accused of instructing subordinates to deliberately mislead the press and public. That behavior is unacceptable, and Mayor Quinton Lucas and the City Council should make that crystal clear to Platt and his staff.

Lying to the public isn’t just immoral. It’s politically foolish. Kansas Citians are grown-ups. They can handle truthful communications from City Hall, and put the information they get into proper perspective.

Does lying to The Star about pothole repair change the reality in the streets? Of course not. Potholes exist, regardless of what Platt or anyone else says about them. Kansas Citians can and will judge for themselves whether the city’s pothole repair program is doing its job.

Lying about potholes, or any other public endeavor, will only make their reaction worse.

We’ll want to keep a careful eye on this case. Hernandez had critics during his time as communications director, and lawsuits from allegedly disgruntled employees must be considered carefully.

On the other hand, if these allegations are proven, it could suggest Platt needs to find work somewhere else.

Anyone who works for the public must tell the public the truth. That’s a bedrock principle that can’t be canceled by Brian Platt, or anyone else.