PITTSFIELD -- A new policy covering City Hall employee interactions with the news media is not an attempt to stifle the flow of information but to expand it, officials said Monday.
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and Director of Administrative Services Julia Sabourin said the written policy was prompted by a number of inquiries from employees unsure how or when to answer reporters' questions on a variety of topics.
The two-page policy statement, dated June 24, was distributed to department heads last week.
The memo was obtained last week by blogger and local cable TV show host Dan Valenti, who termed the policy an attack on free access by the press to city employees.
"The reason this was written was because we were getting a lot of questions [from employees]," said Sabourin, who began in the post in May. Sabourin said she has been trying to streamline and enhance public relations efforts throughout city government.
"In just one example, we would be called by Community Development Department staff members about ongoing events like the Howard Building project or medical marijuana. They would call and ask, ‘Can I talk to them [the media]?' " Sabourin said.
In another instance, the Health Department was asked by a television news crew for an interview on the county mosquito control program.
The Health Department "felt uncomfortable commenting," Sabourin said.
Employees in other departments called her as well, she said, adding, "We were fielding calls every day, with the same questions."
"And this [policy statement] came about after people at Community Development asked for a meeting," she said. Sabourin said she also has since met with workers from other departments that frequently field calls from reporters.
City Hall employees contacted Monday said it is their understanding that the policy statement was primarily prompted by questions from several workers contacted by reporters.
Another reason for formalizing a policy, Sabourin said, is to foster better coordination of city press releases, which have at times come together too late to promote events or not at all.
In the statement from Bianchi to department heads, he praises efforts of employees in "promoting their important work to the public," adding, "I am hoping that by establishing a more formal press protocol within City Hall we can streamline our process and become more efficient about reaching our residents using the press and social media."
The mayor reiterated that comment when contacted Monday.
Sabourin stressed that there were no injudicious comments from employees or leaks to the media that prompted the statement.
Concerning calls and electronic media sound bites, the written statement asks employees who have spoken to a reporter on routine business topics to notify Sabourin afterward of the contact through an email or phone call.
Concerning "a new or unresolved topic," employees are asked to "please call or email [Sabourin] for guidance" or refer the reporter to her.
The same is required for a television appearance or prior to an interview with the media. Employees also are advised to contact Sabourin if they "do not feel comfortable with a reporter" or would like her input on an issue or situation.
The policy doesn't differ from the unofficial policy followed at City Hall for years, Sabourin said, contending that political or controversial questions have traditionally been referred to the mayor's office.
She added that similar policies are in place in many cities and state government offices and in most large businesses.
"Obviously, I was not pleased with the way this was taken," Sabourin said of criticism of the statement. "It was to make it easier to get information out, but that turned into we were trying to make it harder."
Sabourin also acknowledged it would have been wiser to release the statement publicly at the same time it was distributed to department heads. "It was definitely a learning experience," she said.