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Selectmen take back gag order

Last modified: 4/21/2012 12:00:00 AM
The Pittsfield selectmen last night rescinded a policy that prohibited town employees from speaking to the media without prior approval from the selectmen.

"The intent was never, at no time, to have a gag order," said Larry Konopka, chairman of the board of selectmen.

The policy, adopted last week, stated that "any communication that is anticipated to be shared with media outlets (video, audio, written)" should be reviewed by the board of selectmen.

At a special meeting last night, Selectwoman Linda Small read a statement saying the policy was intended "to avoid potentially harmful misinterpretations and misunderstandings within the community.

"However, because it has stimulated more hardship than solution, the board has called a special meeting . . . to rescind the policy that has not yet been officially executed," Small said.

Town administrator Paul Skowron said before the meeting yesterday that the policy had not yet been executed because in the week after the policy was adopted, the selectmen had not reviewed a release of information.

Police Chief Robert Wharem and fire Chief Gary Johnson both said this week that the policy, as adopted, would have prevented them from sharing information during an emergency.

AFT-NH, a union representing several Pittsfield town employees, is considering legal action against the town in reaction to the policy, said Terri Donovan, an attorney for the union.

She said yesterday that the union would review the actions taken by the board to rescind the policy, but said last night's meeting wouldn't rule out the possibility of legal action.

"We need to look at what they do . . . and look at the totality of events since this new board was sworn in (in March)," Donovan said.

Konopka said last night that he feels the town should still have a media policy in place. It would ensure accurate information is communicated to the media and the public, he said, especially during emergency situations.

"I think the whole thing is just it was misinterpreted," Konopka said. "I think this policy's great. I think it's a good idea."

Fire Lt. Nick Abell questioned whether a media policy was necessary.

"Fire and police have a command system already set up, so why don't you look at their policies and have them enforce it instead of at this level?" Abell said.

Konopka said the selectmen plan to notify residents and work with town departments while creating a new policy.

"We're going to be going back to the table and working on it," he said.

Small said last night she hopes that residents and employees will join the selectmen in working for the common good of Pittsfield.

"Words are a powerful tool and can be used for good or to hurt others," she said, reading the selectmen's statement on the policy. "It is the board's hope that discretion as well as common courtesy for our fellow neighbor be exhibited by public employees and officials when submitting letters to the editor."

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)


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