It is difficult to see how the new Pittsfield City Hall policy regarding employee contacts with the media, and by extension, the public, will make communication more efficient, as asserted by Mayor Daniel Bianchi and Director of Administrative Services Julia Sabourin. The policy is more likely to have an inhibiting effect, and the reason for the emergence of this policy raises concerns as well.
The two-page policy statement, dated June 24, was distributed to department heads last week and found its way to local blogger Dan Valenti, who decried it as an attack on the press’ access to city employees. In instituting what the mayor described as a "more formal press protocol within City Hall," employees were advised to contact Ms. Sabourin if "they do not feel comfortable with a reporter" or would like her input on an issue, to contact her for advice when "a new or unresolved topic" is brought up, and to notify her after they have spoken to a reporter.
Ms. Sabourin told The Eagle’s Jim Therrien (July 1) that the policy was developed because many employees had questions about how to handle the media. It isn’t clear why employees are now having these questions in the mayor’s second term unless they believe dealing with the media is potentially problematic for them. If they felt intimidated before they will feel more intimidated now given the rules mandated by the memo, which are unlikely to bring about better communication between City Hall and the press and public.
These kinds of regulations are common in the private sector, but the public sector, which is financed by taxpayers, must encourage contact with the press, not discourage it. The local media’s constituency consists of more than the residents who voted for the mayor; it includes those who voted against him, those who sit out elections and those not old enough to vote. They all have a vested interest in what goes on in City Hall and should expect City Hall to provide access to their representatives in the media.
To her credit, Ms. Sabourin, who is new to the job, acknowledged to The Eagle that the memo should have been released publicly, chalking up the failure to do so as a "learning experience." The larger learning experience would be for City Hall to acknowledge the importance of transparency and openness about its activities on behalf of the city. Taxpayers should expect nothing less.