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Gag order? Pittsfield rethinks a policy

April 23. 2012 11:07PM

Ironically, Pittsfield selectmen drew unwanted media coverage earlier this month when they approved a draft communications policy to limit unwanted media coverage.

The policy forbade employees from communicating with the media without the prior approval of selectmen or their designee. Some in town have suggested that the policy came in response to a letter to the editor a town employee had written. 'It had nothing to do with any letters to the editor,' Selectmen Chairman Larry Konopka told us in an interview on Monday. It was just to clarify town policy for planned events such as the annual balloon rally, he said.

The policy's wording, though, gave the distinct impression that its purpose was to hand selectmen a veto over all employee communications with the media. It stated that the preapproval of communications with the media was for the specific purpose of avoiding communications that could be 'misinterpreted, misunderstood, and possible (sic) unintentionally uncomplimentary to fellow employees, officials or the public generally.'

Any time a policy states as a goal the protection of public officials from statements made by public employees, eyebrows will be raised.

Konopka was reluctant to even discuss the policy this week. (Selectman Linda Small refused to discuss it, and referred all questions to Konopka.)

'We've been burned so badly,' Konopka said.

Looking at the policy's language, it is easy to see why. It appeared even to prevent public safety officials from communicating with the media during emergencies without prior approval from the board or the board's designee. Konopka said that phrasing was taken the wrong way.

'If it's something to do with the police department, the designee would be the police chief,' he said. 'If it's something to do with the fire department, the designee would be the fire chief.'

On Friday, the board held a special meeting to rescind the policy. It is now working with the Local Government Center to design a policy that people won't interpret as a gag order, Konopka said. And that policy will get a full public vetting.

'Next time I guarantee you one thing, I will hold a public work session,' he said.

Good. When that session happens, the public should turn out to help review the policy. After this mess, we suspect that many will.


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