He’d always return your phone call

Michael Cockrell. Record file photo

It’s harder than ever for journalists to access many public officials.

Some government agencies forbid reporters from speaking directly with experts, or at least they may put up major roadblocks. Some  insist on carefully orchestrated email exchanges, as opposed to actual conversations. Some won’t talk at all, simply posting their spin on social media and bypassing journos entirely.

Michael Cockrell, recently departed from the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services, did none of these things. After 18 years in this business, in fact, he may well be the most accessible public official I’ve ever worked with. He is certainly at or near the top.

And that’s kind of remarkable. Because as the local OES chief, Cockrell was a pretty busy guy. He worked long hours, especially during floods or other emergencies. Last winter, when the San Joaquin River spilled over its banks,  someone even brought a cot into the office so that he could sleep there instead of driving home for a couple of hours and then coming right back.

The point is, it’s a stressful job, with many pressing and urgent obligations. But Cockrell never seemed perturbed by the press. He was always willing to talk — whenever he possibly could — and share his expertise, which was considerable after 35 years at OES.

That levee failed in 1997, but the other one didn’t, he might tell you. Here’s the current flow of the San Joaquin River at Vernalis and here’s how it compares to 1997. Here’s where they made the relief cut to save that urban development. (Unsure what a relief cut is? Ask Cockrell. He’ll be happy to explain.)

Media questions never seemed like a hassle to Cockrell. They were just part of the job. He had a policy in his office, in fact, to return every reporter’s phone call within 15 minutes.

“Some say the media is the enemy,” Cockrell told me recently, “but are you going to say that and then turn around and ask them to put your message over the radio or TV or in the newspaper? You need them as much as they need you.”

Record file photo

Last winter, standing on a rain-slickened levee near Manteca, I was asked by a worker supervising the flood-fighting effort if I had a right to be there. I said I did, as long as I wasn’t interfering. He said he’d feel better if Cockrell himself confirmed that, so I called him up and handed the phone over. Cockrell explained the law, and the issue was resolved before it became a serious problem.

He told me later that he considers himself an “advocate” for reporters.

“Your  job is to help them get the story right,” he said. “Your job is not to sit there and keep them out of the way.”

For local journos, Cockrell’s departure is a blow. Let’s hope others across the spectrum of government follow his lead. I’m biased, I supposed, but it does seem that an open and accessible government is good not only for journalists, but for the general public, too.

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