Marana writes stiff media policy - The Explorer: Import

Marana writes stiff media policy

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Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2006 12:00 am | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Eric Beidel, EBeidel@ExplorerNews.com

December 6, 2006 - Anthony Cuaron works for the town of Marana's Water Department.

During a brief conversation with the EXPLORER on Nov. 28, he offered his first and last name and answered one question regarding a new town policy. He interrupted the next question.

"At this point, I'm going to just stop talking," he said.

When asked why, he responded: "I don't want to have this used against me."

That afternoon, Cuaron sent an e-mail to the town's public information officer Jessica Ziegler, providing a summary of his conversation with the reporter. He wrote that he stopped answering questions "because I didn't want any comments to come back in a negative way toward me … I hope I haven't said anything wrong."

The town of Marana recently adopted a media relations policy that stops short of requiring employees to notify town management of any conversation they have with a member of the media.

The policy, approved through Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat, urges employees to forward all media inquiries to the town public information officer. The policy warns employees that "nothing is off the record" and anything they say reflects back upon the town.

"Except when expressly directed to do so by town management, a Town employee is not required to speak to the media," the policy states. Ziegler underlined "not" in an e-mail she sent to all town employees after the EXPLORER began calling employees at random to ask them about the new policy.

Officials want "to avoid inconsistencies, inaccuracies and confusion in Town statements to the media," the policy states. An employee should immediately report any discussion with the media "so that the Town can make any necessary corrections or clarifications and supply any appropriate supplemental information," the policy states.

The policy reminds employees that "inappropriate or unprofessional statements to the media, like any employee communications with the public, can be cause for employee disciplinary action."

The policy proves a stark contrast to the lack of policy for Pima County, a much larger bureaucracy. In May 2005, County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry sent a memo to his department heads after complaints that the press had trouble reaching staffers.

"Apparently the press have been directed to 'Public Information Officers' or spokespersons within departments," Huckleberry wrote. "In reviewing our job descriptions, I find neither in the list of job classifications of the County. The responsibility of County staff is to assist the press, not to put up artificial barriers."

Last week, Huckleberry described his not-so-bureaucratic approach to dealing with the media.

"We don't filter calls. If media calls you, you call them back and give them a straight answer," he said. "That's the end of our policy."

Marana Human Resources Director Regina Fleming presented the town's new policy and seven other new policies to the town council on Nov. 21. Council members asked no questions, and Fleming's presentation lasted less than a minute.

In an e-mail, Fleming referred to the town's media policy as the least complicated of the town's new policies, which also include crackdowns on employee cell phone, Internet and e-mail usage.

The town code allows the town manager to create or revise administrative policies without approval from the town council. It appears town officials failed to inform all employees of the media policy until after the EXPLORER began calling town staffers at random on Nov. 27.

"I haven't heard of it yet," said George Pesina Sr., who works in the town's operations and maintenance department. He would need to talk to his supervisor before commenting on the policy, he added.

"It comes down to a uniform voice," said Finance Director Erik Montague, a relatively recent hire of the town. "I don't believe in any way that it's a form of censorship."

Thomas Thivener, a planner for the town, treats a call from the media like a call from a constituent. He felt no need to inform the town's PIO of his brief conversation with the EXPLORER, he said.

"I don't see this is anything complicated, so there's no need really. I'm taking queries all the time, so this is nothing new."

Thivener later shot a short e-mail to Ziegler to let her know he spoke with a reporter.

"It's a policy that we have to live by," said Scott Leska, an engineer with the town. "As part of our job, we have to follow policies."

Leska has talked to reporters numerous times, he said. He interrupted himself to ask if his name would appear in the paper. He ended the conversation upon learning that it might.

A few employees asked if they would be quoted before abruptly ending conversations. Some never returned calls. One responded through Ziegler, who said the employee "didn't feel entirely comfortable discussing this topic with the press."

Some thought the policy no big deal.

Fernando Prol oversees the town's traffic engineering division. He worked under a policy "no different" than Marana's for 26 years in Prince George's County, Md.

"It's nothing new to (department heads)," Assistant Public Works Director and Town Engineer Keith Brann said. He called the policy "a reiteration" of what department heads have been told in previous meetings.

Oro Valley has drafted a media relations policy that will go before its town council in January during a study session. Oro Valley Town Attorney Melinda Garahan denied the EXPLORER's request to see the draft. Though asked to, she failed to cite the statute or case law that exempts the document from being released to the public.

The town's PIO Bob Kovitz described the preliminary policy as "pretty vanilla." It spreads responsibility throughout departments, he said.

"It's really up to department heads on who they want talking to the media," Kovitz said. "Marana feels a bit differently about their policy." Oro Valley's policy will request employees to keep the PIO informed of any dealings with the media, Kovitz added.

Marana Unified School District follows a policy even stronger than Marana's. The district's policy states that all media inquiries "shall be channeled through the office of the Superintendent." The policy purports to "ensure that the general public receives a positive message about the District."

In an e-mail, Marana Town Attorney Frank Cassidy wrote that it "takes it to the level of the absurd" to suggest an employee might be punished for failing to report a conversation with the press, though he added: "If an employee gives inaccurate information to the media and then fails to inform the PIO of the media contact, the chance of disciplinary action against the employee is higher than if the PIO is informed of the media contact."

Marana implemented the policy to "prevent miscommunication with the news media and to protect the health, safety and welfare of Town constituents and personnel by reducing the chances of inaccurate or misunderstood statements," Cassidy wrote.

Cassidy and Reuwsaat failed to return phone messages. They both did not return e-mails seeking further comment. The day of the EXPLORER's deadline, many of the town's high-ranking officials were in San Francisco for a bond reading. Ziegler spoke on behalf of town management.

"Most employees I have spoken with have told me that they are pleased about the media policy," she said. "The town of Marana has the utmost confidence in the abilities of our staff. The policy is only in place to ensure complete and accurate information, which often requires that employees with wider knowledge … serve as a clearing house for information."

The policy will help give "an appropriate level of detail" to media sources while keeping in mind the "bigger picture," Ziegler added.

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