May 21, 2015

County committee OKs new media policy


Staff Reporter

A new employment policy endorsed Wednesday morning by the Cortland County Legislature’s Personnel Committee would require county employees to refer all news media inquiries to department heads to avoid any dissemination of inaccurate information.
County Attorney Karen Howe said after the meeting the intent of the policy is to ensure that factual and accurate information comes from each department, with department heads being the best to speak about what goes on in their offices.
“(The intent is) to get out complete and accurate information and hold the department heads accountable for knowing,” Howe said after the meeting. “If it’s wrong, then they are responsible for giving out wrong information about their department.”
Howe said the only part of the policy she would change is a sentence that says “Please do not say you are not allowed to talk to the media.”
“Every employee retains their right to free speech,” Howe said, adding she has not been able to come up with a better way to say it. “I think that piece would be the most controversial.”
The Cortland Standard has spoken with many county employees who are not department heads, such as Deputy Fiscal Manager Carolyn Kennedy and Jack Hess, deputy director of the Information Technology Department, who will now have to refer to their department heads before giving information. Employees who are not department heads can speak to the press if the department head approves it.
Newly appointed Budget and Finance Director Peggy Mousaw said after legislative meetings Wednesday afternoon she would prefer that the news media get any financial numbers from her since she will be overseeing all finance-related activity in the county.
The Personnel Committee and the Budget and Finance Committee meetings held Wednesday were the first legislative meetings Mousaw attended since she started the job Monday.
Her position was created to handle the budget more efficiently after legislators found a $2 million gap in revenues when preparing for the 2015 budget, following the departure of previous County Administrator Martin Murphy. The county administrator position has not been filled or discussed during legislative meetings.
Kennedy said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon she was told she could not speak to anyone about any numbers that she has access to.
“I was told not to speak to the press at all,” Kennedy said. “(It would) have to come from the third floor.”
Kennedy added she was told not to speak with media by Legislature Chair Don Boyden (R-Preble, Scott, and Homer) who was directed by someone to talk to her.
Kennedy said she did not know who directed Boyden to talk to her.
Mousaw and Kennedy both agree numbers related to the county’s budget or operations should be public information. Kennedy said she thinks Mousaw will be open to giving out information once she gets acclimated to the job.
Hess was unable to be reached as of press time this morning.
Legislator Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville) said Wednesday afternoon the policy is not an indication of resistance to sharing information with the news media, but rather just a way to ensure the right information is circulated so people can make opinions based on accurate figures.
“The other thing is you want to make sure the message you’re releasing which the public counts on ... is factual information,” Whitney said, adding that giving inaccurate information would make the public upset. “It’s just a mechanism put in place to try to make sure the media has the best and most accurateinformation.”
Personnel Director Annette Barber agreed with Howe and Whitney, saying county employees are just unsure of what to do when approached by the news media.
Barber added the policy was not created because of any specific event.
“I just think it’s clear so people understand, so (the information) is consistent,” Barber said.
The policy does not pertain to legislators, but a few had concerns about the difficulty of accessing information they feel should be public.
Legislator Jim Denkenberger (R-Cuyler, Truxton and Solon) said after the meeting he did not agree with the policy. He believes the legislators and public should know what is going on in the county, keeping the doors open.
“It’s publicly procured information,” Denkenberger said. “All information the county has should be perfectly available.”
Denkenberger said, for example, some residents have tried to get revenues and expenses of landfill and recycling operations, but were told those numbers could not be released.
This is not the first time a governmental body created a barrier for a news organization, Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said Wednesday.
“In some instances, that’s the equivalent of attempting to manage the news,” Freeman said about the policy. “I can understand why governments would want to do that.”
Freeman added he thinks an employee should have the right to express an opinion as long as it does not disclose anything confidential within his or her department.
An email is expected to be sent to all department heads about the policy.
The policy will be brought to the full Legislature May 28 for approval.


To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe