First Amendment

Under New Communication Policy, John DiBuonaventuro’s Letter Would be Approved for Website

I have now had an opportunity to review the Communication Policy which was passed by the Board of Supervisors on November 19.  The policy was in response to Supervisors John DiBuonaventuro’s ‘letter to the citizens’ of September 5 which appeared on township letterhead on the township website.  It remains unclear as to which supervisors ‘saw’  the letter before it went on the township website.  You may recall that Mimi Gleason, former township manager, responded to my inquiry stating that she approved DiBuonaventuro’s letter along with the township solicitor Vince Donohue and BOS chair Michelle Kichline.  Beyond Gleason, Donohue and supervisors Kichline and DiBuonaventuro, it is unclear as to what any of the other supervisors knew.  Although privately some of the supervisors denied knowing anything about DiBuonaventuro’s letter, nothing was ever said publicly.

The communication policy is an attempt to define social media responsibilities in the township, and lists the primary communicators as township manager, police chief and chair of the Board of Supervisors.  The stated purpose of the communication is:

The purpose of this policy is to establish guidelines as to how a member or group of members of Tredyffrin Township’s institutions should communicate with the public. In this era of a multitude of vehicles for disseminating information, the Township has determined that it should adopt a communications policy that will help residents clearly distinguish the communications of an individual from those of one of the Township’s institutions. The purpose of this is not to reduce open dialog but to provide reasonable guidance to Township officials on how to communicate with the Public.

In regard to the township website, the communication policy states:

The Township web site (www.tredyffrin.org) provides an on-going method of communication with the public. The Township Manager or designated member of Township staff shall be responsible for maintaining the web site and for coordination of updates to the web site. All content must be approved by the Township Manager. Supervisors may use the website to communicate with the public on Township issues. Due to implied endorsement nature of the site, any Supervisors using the Township website must be clear so as to identify of the author(s) and supporters of the content posted.

The policy makes it clear that individual supervisors can use the website as long as they identify they are acting independently.  The only approval required for the use of the township website is from the township manager. Since the township manager is vetted and hired by the Board of Supervisors, my guess is that approval process would be fairly easy.  There is no description of what constitutes ‘township issues’ — no guidelines or definition provided in the policy.  The new communication policy leaves ‘township issues’ completely open to interpretation.

What is obvious is that the communication policy is an attempt to separate the actions of supervisors from each other.  In other words, the policy implies that DiBuonaventuro (or any of the other 6 supervisors) can continue to write their ‘letters’ on the township website, but the only difference is that the public is not to assume he/she represents the voice of the rest of the board.

The communication policy makes no reference to township resources (staff time, legal review by solicitor, etc.) by individual supervisors who may choose to use the website for their personal communications.  Apparently, the costs of the personal communications by individual supervisors to be absorbed by taxpayer dollars, under the guise of ‘township issues’.

At September’s Board of Supervisors meeting, former T/E School Board member and resident Andrea Felkins weighed in on supervisor communications to the public, stating,

” … This is about the need for a policy that would dictate the circumstances that would permit or deny a member of this board to use Board letterhead and post a personal letter.  I cannot envision any circumstance that would have allowed this personal and angry tirade to be used in this fashion. … So, if you do not have a policy that dictates the use of your website that would have governed this, then I encourage you to develop one.  We should not permit the use of taxpayer funded and limited access sites to vent frustrations and exorcise your demons. There is no rebuttal to any township distribution.   And I think we all know that the personal attack on Pattye Benson, claiming that she is bent on damaging the township, as well as the childish reference to her “absolute defeat” in an election went well beyond the bounds of civility.  Mr. D, your letter expressed indignation, and you were clearly upset, but it turned into a bullying exercise, and intimidated anyone who might challenge you in the future.

Clearly, I believe there was a misuse of the township resources, township website and township letterhead with DiBuonaventuro’s letter of September 5.  The problem with this new communication policy, is that it offers no guidelines or guarantee to the public that this similar situation cannot occur over and over again.

Without parameters as to what constitutes ‘township issues’ or any approval oversight by the Board of Supervisors for the use of the website by individual supervisors, how is future abuse to be avoided?

Looking at various municipal communication policies, I found Lower Merion Township’s website policy to be of interest, representing a clear and concise approach to usage.  Their policy is  specific as to what constitutes township business and that the objective of the township website is to inform the public.  A website policy such as Lower Merion’s would help Tredyffrin Township to avoid  repeating mistakes in the future.  As it now stands, there is nothing in Tredyffrin’s new communication policy to avoid a repeat performance by our Board of Supervisors.

Here is Lower Merion’s website policy:

Lower Merion Township Web Site Operating Policy

Purpose

The purpose of the Township Web Site is to provide information to the public about government and government-related community programs, activities, services, events, and issues. The Township Web Site will also provide links to related areas that will assist the public in learning more about the community of Lower Merion Township. This 24 hour/day information will originate at and be the responsibility of the Township of Lower Merion.

Objectives

  1. To provide timely public information about government meetings, services, programs and events.
  2. To provide information which will enable the residents of Lower Merion to have more effective access to local government.
  3. To educate residents about government procedures and processes.
  4. To provide residents with information on various Township functions and departments.
  5. To expand community awareness of the decision-making processes of local government.
  6. To provide accurate, up-to-date information to residents during emergencies.
  7. To assist Township departments in the delivery of services, programs and information.
  8. To provide access (via hyperlinks) to information concerning:
    • historical, cultural and educational institutions (including the Lower Merion School District)
    • economic development and opportunities within the Township as well as facts about the Township’s numerous business districts
    • other organizations which provide services to the citizens of the Township (e.g., public transportation, healthcare, etc.)

Content

The web site will include information directly supporting the stated objectives which benefit the public. Examples include a welcome from the President of the Board of Commissioners and the Township Manager, the President of the Board of Commissioners Vision for the Township, biographies of each Commissioner, schedule of public meetings of Boards and Commissions, frequently asked questions, history, etc.

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Tredyffrin Township Website Policy … Rank Hath Its Privileges

As of last night’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Tredyffrin Township supervisors approved a communication policy that included the use of the government’s website by the supervisors.  Although I was told earlier in the day by the township solicitor Vince Donohue that the meeting agenda would be changed to include this ‘vote’, no such change appeared on the agenda, leaving me to believe the discussion would occur at some future date.  The resolution for a communication policy was not listed on the agenda however; it was included in the meeting. According to Donohue, a resolution does not take advance advertisement.

Michelle Kichline read the resolution for the communication policy with no comment from any of the supervisors. You will have to watch the BOS meeting or wait to see if the meeting minutes include the policy, as the resolution was not available in a printed format at the meeting. The vote to approve the policy was unanimous. Going forward the policy for the use of the website is, with approval from the township manager and township solicitor, that supervisors are permitted to use the website for ‘township business’ in communicating with residents.  However, the communique must explicitly state which supervisor(s), whether the entire board, a subset or an individual are responsible for the message.

Individual supervisors can independently use the website for whatever he or she believes constitutes ‘township business’.  Although I questioned that, without oversight or a majority vote from the other supervisors, John DiBuonaventuro’s letter of September 5 or a similar personal diatribe could be repeated, it changed nothing. Based on recent history, resident, Cheryl Bittner asked that a definition of ‘township business’ be included in the communication policy.  That was not deemed necessary – which seemed to suggest that supervisors know what constitutes township business.

 In essence, there is absolutely nothing to stop DiBuonaventuro or any of the other six supervisors from writing opinion letters on the township website whenever they disagree with residents, the press or comments on a blog. They just need the approval from the solicitor and township manager.  Scary proposition – given that the township solicitor and township manager approved DiBuonaventuro’s September 5 letter as ‘township business’.  The township’s communication policy has now given all seven supervisors a green light to use the township website as they wish – just call it ‘township business’ and it becomes a personal tool to communicate your message.

What’s the saying; “rank hath its privileges” … guess the use of the township website is a new perk if you are an elected official in Tredyffrin Township.

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