Report: Mayor Benjamin cuts contact with local journalists; claims bias

Mayor Steve Benjamin

COLUMBIA (WACH) -- Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who took office in June after campaigning on a platform of government transparency, made a surprise comment Thursday saying he intends to limit journalists' access in response to unspecified examples of what he says is unfair coverage, according to Columbia's Free Times newspaper.

Free Times reporter Eva Moore said Benjamin cited media coverage following the mayor's downtown Columbia car crash in the early morning hours following his election night victory as an instance where he doesn't feel the press treated him fairly.

Benjamin did not make any public appearance until several hours after the crash, and his still-ongoing decision not to discuss the incident publicly prompted speculation among some columnists as to whether the mayor would be as committed to transparency as he pledged on the campaign trail. Benjamin did hold a brief press conference June 2, six weeks after the accident, where he read a written statement but declined to answer questions from reporters.

Concerns about the new administration's openness amplified in recent months after reporters were instructed by then-spokesman Michael Wukela not to contact the mayor directly and instead submit all questions through him. Benjamin's predecessor, Bob Coble, routinely spoke to reporters directly and shared his personal cell phone number with many local journalists.

While still a candidate, Benjamin spoke frequently about the lack of transparency in city government and the need for public officials to be open and honest with the citizenry they serve.

Government transparency is about living up to that most fundamental commitment: any institution engaged on the public TMs behalf must be open to public participation and scrutiny, said Benjamin on his campaign website earlier this year.

In the days following his election, WACH Fox station management extended at least three offers to Mayor Benjamin for a meeting to discuss the working relationship between reporters and government officials. Those requests have thus far been ignored.

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WACH Fox News attempted to clarify Thursday afternoon whether the mayor's statement is intended as formal city policy and/or whether he intends for other city officials to limit contact with the media as well. City of Columbia spokeswoman Leshia Utsey said there has been no change in city policy. Utsey also said the mayor was unavailable for comment Thursday, but is open to giving an interview in the future.

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