Freedom of Speech

Re Personal Letter on Government Website — Did Tredyffrin Supervisor DiBuonaventuro receive approval from his fellow supervisors?

Did John DiBuonaventuro actually have approval from fellow supervisors before using government resources and government letterhead to post his personal letter of September 5 on the government’s website?  The answer to that question is not entirely clear, and the answer also depends on whom you ask.

As the resident targeted in DiBuonaventuro’s diatribe to the citizens of Tredyffrin Township, I was very interested to read the Main Line Media News article, “Majority of Supervisors may not have approved DiBuonaventuro letter posted to website”.  In the article, Rich Llgenfritz explains that the newspaper filed an open records request with Tredyffrin Township asking for all information pertaining to DiBuonaventuro’s letter on the township website.  However, it is interesting that MLMN only received one record; an email from DiBuonaventuro to Patricia Hoffman, executive secretary for Tredyffrin Township.

I am grateful to Llgenfritz and Main Line Media News for their continued interest in this matter.  If you have followed Community Matters since DiBuonaventuro’s September 5 letter to the citizens appeared on the Tredyffrin Township website, you have read the September 7 email from former Township Manager Mimi Gleason to me. Following the email, there was a conference call on September 14 from Gleason and Police Superintendent Tony Giaimo, with no stated purpose except to continue to harass. (Click here for Community Matters post of September 18 which includes my personal statement and video of the September 17 Board of Supervisors meeting) As a result of DiBuonaventuro’s letter, Gleason’s email and telephone call, I sought legal counsel with attorney Sam Stretton.

One of several troubling unanswered questions in regards to DiBuonaventuro’s personal use of the township website, is did he act alone?  Or, … was there discussion (approval) from the other members of the Board of Supervisors.  In her response to my question on this matter, Gleason stated the following in her email dated September 7:

“ … In answer to your question, it is unusual to post a statement from an individual Supervisor, but given the inaccurate and derogatory statements and innuendo publicly made about John DiBuonaventuro, I decided to approve the posting of the letter on the Township website.  In this case, he was the subject of baseless public speculation simply because he is a Tredyffrin Supervisor.  The circumstances justified the use of the website to publicly defend him, carrying with it the implicit endorsement of the Township to the accuracy of his statements.  The Chairman of the Board of Supervisors and the Township Solicitor agreed that it was appropriate for the letter to go on the website.”

Gleason’s email states that the use of the government’s website by DiBuonaventuro carried with it the “implicit endorsement of the Township”.  She further states that the Chairman [Kichline] and the Township Solicitor [Vince Donohue] agreed the letter was appropriate for the website.  But did Kichline really see the actual letter?  During the conference call with Gleason and Giaimo, Gleason maintained that Kichline had seen the actual letter.  I argued  with Gleason that she was incorrect … that Kichline had personally told me that she did not see the actual letter but that she gave her OK to DiBuonaventuro verbally for the letter on the website, as long as the solicitor Vince Donohue had read and approved it.

Subsequent to DiBuonaventuro’s letter going on the website, there has been no public statement from the other 6 supervisors on this matter, except by Kichline who said that the Board would work on a website policy.  Why the silence from the other supervisors?  Privately, some of the supervisors have told citizens that they never saw the letter and some have stated that they would not have approved of the letter on the government’s website.  Why don’t the supervisors own these opinions in public?  If I was being accused of harming the First Amendment rights of a citizen   (especially one that I was elected to serve) and had not approved (or even seen) the letter in the first place, I certainly would not remain silent.  Are these other supervisors afraid of doing what’s right or are they perhaps afraid of retaliation from DiBuonaventuro … or, the political party they all represent?  Where’s the independent thought?

Going back to Llgenfritz’s MLMN article – the only piece of communication that was provided through the Open Records request, in regards to DiBuonaventuro’s letter on the website, is the following brief email from DiBuonaventuro to Pat Hoffman, executive secretary for the township:

 “Pat, this is a confidential email. This letter has been approved by Michelle and Vince. Please put it on the township letterhead and make three copies for Kristen [Mayock], Michelle and I to review when we get in this morning. We will give you distribution directions once a final review is done. Thanks and see you around 8 or when you get in. JD.  [John DiBuonaventuro]

This email clearly states that the Michelle Kichline, BOS chair approved the letter, but did she?  If Kichline approved DiBuonaventuro’s letter, then that would mean that she lied to me.  And I don’t believe that she lied.  So which is it?

Another interesting thing to note on this email is that there was a private meeting of 3 supervisors – DiBuonaventuro, Kristen Mayock and Kichline.  Why was Mayock involved but none of the other supervisors?  As chair of the BOS, I understand the rationale behind Kichline attending the meeting but it is unclear if she actually attended or not.  Mayock and Kichline are the two attorneys on the Board – was that the reason behind their request to attend this meeting?  And it should also be noted that DiBuonaventuro states in this email, that he has approval from the solicitor Vince Donohue for the letter on the website. Everyone seems to be in agreement that Donohue saw and approved the letter – DiBuonaventuro, Kichline and Gleason all state that Donohue approved the letter.  Interesting that this short email is all that is contained in the files in regards to DiBuonaventuro’s letter.  Just interesting.

Last Friday I posted the letter (click here to read) that my attorney Sam Stetton sent to members of the Board of Supervisors in regards to DiBuonaventuro’s personal letter on government letterhead on the government website.  As follow-up to my posting Stretton’s letter, Llgenfriz had a phone interview with Vince Donohue, the township solicitor.  It was alarming to me to see Donohue discuss the legal situation between myself and the township in the local newspaper.  He furthered stated that he had sent a response to Stretton and that it would be up to me whether or not I made it public.

At last night’s Board of Supervisors meeting, strangely there were three of the seven supervisors missing.  I do not think I have ever been to a BOS meeting where two supervisors were missing, let alone three!  Missing supervisors were Phil Donohue (stated reason for the absence was still recovering from surgery), Chair Michelle Kichline and Vice Chair John DiBuonaventuro — the stated reason for their absence was ‘personal’.

Supervisor Mike Heaberg read a statement in regards to the website policy which suggested that there would be a policy presented at the November 19 Board of Supervisors meeting.  It was unclear whether or not the public would be permitted input into the website policy.  Public input could prove important when you read the response from the township solicitor Vince Donohue to my attorney Sam Stretton below:

November 2, 2012

Samuel C. Stretton, Esquire
301 South High Street
PO Box 3231
West Chester, PA 19381
Re: Tredyffrin Township

The Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors is in receipt of your letter dated October 25, 2012.

As an initial observation, I read Supervisor DiBuonaventuro’s letter as a reaction in his official capacity as a Supervisor to Ms. Benson’s blog entries regarding, primarily, Township issues.  This Board does not quash public discussion about Township matters. To the contrary, this Board’s emphasis on transparency and encouragement of public input is evident in all of the initiatives it undertakes.  As to Ms. Benson specifically, I would point out that she actively continues to maintain her blog and participates during the public input portion of the agenda at virtually every Township meeting without censure or objection. Accordingly, neither the contents of the letter nor its posting on the Township website constitute an attempt to suppress, or a breach of, Ms. Benson’s First Amendment rights.

Second, it is important to note that the Board of Supervisors, as an entity, never endorsed nor rejected Supervisor DiBuonaventuro’s letter that was posted on the website.  Accordingly, the Board believes that the issue involving the letter is one between Ms. Benson and Mr. DiBuonaventuro as an individual supervisor.

Nonetheless, this incident has highlighted the need for a policy governing use of the Township website and other Township-managed social media outlets as a means of communication by the Board and by each Supervisor (or group thereof). All seven members of the Board are entirely supportive of the initiative to enact such a policy, which has been under way since mid-September. It was discussed at the last meeting of the Board by chair Kichline.

The primary purposes of the policy will be threefold. First, it will document what the Supervisors already practice: that communications on the Township website, letterhead or other Township-managed social media outlets shall pertain to Township issues.  Second, the policy will ensure that the reader is clear about the source of the communication – i.e., whether the source is an individual Supervisor, the Board as an entity, a subset of Supervisors, etc. Third, the policy will delegate certain communication responsibilities to certain senior Township staff, depending on the nature of the content of the communication (Township Manager, Superintendent of Police, etc.). This policy will cover not only the website, but also Township letterhead and other Township-sponsored social media outlets. The purpose of the policy is not, however, to restrict any Supervisor’s ability to communicate with Township residents on matters each deems appropriate.

Crafting the right policy is not a task to be rushed. The Board is diligently pursuing the finalization of this policy, but intends to be thoughtful in this ongoing process to ensure that the resulting policy addresses existing needs and avoids unintended consequences. The Board intends to complete this process soon and updates will be provided at each Board meeting until it is enacted.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss. Thank you,

Very Truly Yours,

Vince T. Donohue
Lamb McErlane, PC

Several  things are interesting to note in Donohue’s response.  He speaks of the transparency of the Board of Supervisors.  Based on the issue of DiBuonaventuro’s letter alone, I’d suggest that this Board if far from transparent.  Clearly, we still don’t know who saw the letter or who approved it.  Donohue states that the Board never endorsed nor rejected DiBuonaventuro’s letter on the website, yet Mimi Gleason’s email to me clearly stated that the use of the township website for DiBuonaventuro’s letter, “carried with it the implicit endorsement of the Township”.

Donohue is saying one thing, Gleason is saying another, and I would suggest thirdly, that by using the government letterhead, which has all members of the Board of Supervisors listed looks like compliance to me.  Obviously, if during the last 2 months, any of the other six supervisors had chosen to ‘distance’ themselves from DiBuonaventuro and the letter, that would be different … the problem is that they all “stood by their man”.

Nowhere in the letter does Donohue address the intimidation tactics used in DiBuonaventuro’s letter or Gleason’s email and phone calls towards me.  Donohue however suggests that the Board believes this is a personal matter between DiBuonaventuro and me – two problems with that logic.  First, DiBuonaventuro does not limit his personal attacks to just me, he also goes after the First Amendment rights of the press, specifically Main Line Media News.  Second, if Donohue and the other supervisors view this as some kind of personal matter that DiBuonaventuro has with me and Community Matters, what business does a personal matter have on government letterhead and government website.   How can Donohue claim the contents of DiBuonaventuro’s letter is Township business when the tirade includes my 2009 supervisor race?

Now look at what Donohue claims the township website policy will include –

  1. Document the communications on the Township website, letterhead, social media outlets that pertain to Township issues.
  2. Ensure that the reader is clear about the source of the communication – whether an individual supervisor, the entire board or some subset
  3. Delegate certain communication to Township Manager, Police Superintendent, etc.

Then you have this sentence in Donohue’s letter, “ … The purpose of the policy is not, however, to restrict any Supervisor’s ability to communicate with Township residents on matters each deems appropriate.”  The way I read it, is DiBuonaventuro (or any other supervisor) gets carte blanche to continue to use government website as their personal ‘bully pulpit’ whenever the mood strikes.  Looks like to me, that if you are a supervisor all you need do is label your communication  to the public ‘Township business’ and the website is yours to use.  I guess the policy needs to protect the rights of DiBuonaventuro to use government resources whenever he feels threatened by the local news media or Community Matters.  As a citizen of Tredyffrin Township, I certainly will not find this website acceptable if approved by the Board of Supervisors.

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Defending First Amendment Rights in Tredyffrin Township

It has been 8+  weeks, since Tredyffrin Township Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro wrote and posted his September 5, 2012 letter to the citizens on the township website. (click here to read the letter). Over the last 2 months, I continue to receive phone calls, emails and have had many discussions with residents that are troubled and concerned about DiBuonaventuro’s letter and use of government letterhead, government website and government resources for his personal attack of traditional news sources as well a private citizen, who dare to question our government. Subsequent to September 5th, we have learned that DiBuonaventuro’s personal letter and use of government resources, was apparently sanctioned and approved by former township manager Mimi Gleason, township solicitor Vince Donahue and the other six members of the Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors.

At the September 17, 2012 Board of Supervisors meeting, I read a personal statement (click here for Community Matters post and links to BOS meeting and statement) which addressed DiBuonaventuro’s letter and subsequent email and joint phone call from the township manager and police chief on this topic.

When the framers of our Constitution insisted on Freedom of Speech rights, one of their aims was so that all Americans – no matter their social class or position in our society – could vigorously examine and criticize our government. These rights have throughout our history nurtured our democracy and made us a beacon to the whole world. However, as history has played out, the battle for these rights has proven at times to be hard-won rights that we have to continually fight for and renew.  First Amendment rights are a cornerstone to this nation’s government and citizens have a right to discuss issues that are of importance.  The freedom is speech is in place for all of us – including the citizens of Tredyffrin Township.  Further, freedom of speech includes ‘me’ as a citizen and Community Matters.

In 1996, Pennsylvania federal judge Stewart Dalzell, wrote his opinion in the ACLU v. Reno, the Internet – Freedom of Speech case, “As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion. It also deserves a great deal of attention from civil liberties activists who are concerned about free speech, privacy, and universal access – because the larger the scale of a new medium, the greater the temptation to restrict it.”  As background, Dalzell, a 1969 graduate of Penn Law School, was recommended by Pennsylvania Senators Heinz and Spector and nominated by President George Bush to fill a judicial vacancy on the federal bench in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1990. He was confirmed by the Senate in 1991.

The last couple of months since DiBuonaventuro’s September 5 letter appeared on the township website have given me time to reflect.  Because all township supervisors, the former township manager and township solicitor supported DiBuonaventuro’s letter and use of the government letterhead and resources, I knew that I needed to take a stand for First Amendment rights in Tredyffrin Township.  If an elected official is permitted to use the public website whenever they disagree with a news story, what’s next for the citizens of Tredyffrin Township? Where will it stop?  What recourse do citizens have — we are not permitted the use of the township website to defend ourselves.  The end result … a chilling effect intended to silence all those who disagree.

To be clear, DiBuonaventuro is entitled to his own freedom of speech; he has every right to explain himself, defend, etc. He could write a letter to the editor, make a comment on Community Matters, etc. etc. — I simply do not think it is OK to use Government resources for a personal matter by an elected official.

As a result of the September 5, 2012 letter written by township supervisor John DiBuonaventuro, using the government letterhead, government website and government resources, I sought legal counsel and have retained the services of attorney Samuel Stretton.  The following letter from Stretton dated October 25, 2012 was mailed to each member of Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors. To date, there has been no response.

October 25, 2012

Michelle H. Kichline, Chair
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

John P. DiBuonaventuro, Vice Chair
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Philip Donahue
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Michael C. Heaberg
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Kristen K. Mayock
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Paul W. Olson
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Evelyn Richter
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Dear Supervisors:

Please be advised I have been retained by Pattye Benson, in reference to a letter of September 5, 2012 written by Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro. This letter was posted on the Tredyffrin Township website.  This letter was done on the letterhead of the Board of Supervisors.  Attached and marked as Exhibit “A” is a copy of the September 5th letter.

This letter of Mr. DiBuonaventuro, in effect, used Government funds, Government letterhead, and a Government website to respond to a private blog on his personal issues. I believe it is entirely inappropriate to allow a Government official to use Government resources to respond to matters involving his personal conduct.  I understand there was and is no policy as to the use of the government website and the expenditure of government funds.

I am asking that this Board immediately adopt a policy so this sort of misconduct and abuse of the First Amendment will not occur again.  I am also asking that an apology be placed on the website. Further, I am asking that the letter be rejected by the Board as inappropriate to be placed on the township website.

Further, the letter is inaccurate. The blog “Community Matters” is written by Ms. Benson to raise important community issues. The blog at issue concerned the conduct of the Tredyffrin Township Police Department in not appearing at the two criminal hearings for a member of the Zoning Board. There were two different cases, and both were set for the same day.  Coincidentally, neither officer appeared on that day, resulting in the cases being discharged. The failure to appear by two officers was surprising since the Tredyffrin police officers are known to always appear at criminal hearings. Clearly, the failure to appear raised some questions.

The blog “Community Matters” also raised the question about one of the supervisors and his relationship with the Zoning Board member. These are valid issues of public discussion and concern.

The letter, which is dated September 5, 2012, from Supervisor DiBuonaventuro, is essentially a personal attack on Ms. Benson, supposedly defending himself. This type of personal letter has no place on the Board of Supervisors letterhead and no place on the township website.

What is particularly disturbing is the last paragraph on the first page where Mr. DiBuonaventuro, using Government resources, Government letterhead, and the Government website, criticizes legitimate discussions of public business. He calls this a “disturbing trend”. He utilized the Government website to bully “Community Matters” and others.

This conduct, using Government resources to respond to those who speak out or discuss Government issues is unacceptable and should be disavowed by the Government immediately. If Mr. DiBuonaventuro is not able to accept public criticism, he ought to resign as Supervisor. Those who choose to hold public office have my respect.  But as part of serving, one has to understand there will be differences of opinion, which should be welcomed as part of the public discussions. To utilize the platform of the Government website and Government letterhead to try to bully bloggers is totally unacceptable and foreign to the First Amendment.

This improper website use and letter has to be put in the context that my client then received a phone call from the Township Manager with the Police Chief on the same line. Clearly, such a tactic has the effect of chilling legitimate speech.

Further, when Ms. Benson spoke to the Township Manager about the letter, the response was an email dated September 7th to Ms. Benson criticizing her and supporting the use of public resources of the Supervisor without approval to criticize public comments.

It is a sad day if the Government resources can be used by Supervisors to defend their own personal issues. But it is a sadder day when the Government resources and the authority of the Government is used to try to chill First Amendment discussions.

I am requesting an apology to Ms. Benson and I ask that a policy be put in place to prevent Government resources to be used for individuals to express their personal dislike or disagreement of articles. It is unacceptable that an individual can use the power of Government to try to bully and prevent legitimate discussions of questionable conduct by Government officials.  I will await your advice. I hope to have a response in the next 7 days.

Very truly yours,

Samuel C. Stretton

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Tredyffrin Board of Supervisors Meeting, 2-8-10 . . . YouTube Video Part III: Citizen John Petersen

The next to take his turn to present comments was John Petersen. The audience witnessed an amazing exchange between John and Chairman Lamina and Supervisor Kampf.  John attempted to ask questions of the supervisors but was quickly interupted by Lamina and Kampf.  It was obvious that they had come to the meeting prepared to ‘take John on’ .  It appeared to me that Lamina and Kampf were not about to let John make his comments without intervention.  Although John tried to ‘plow’ on through, at one point Lamina is heard to say that John would not be allowed to speak again.  The behaviour of these 2 elected officials calls in to question a citizens right to freedom of speech. 

The interchange between John and Lamina and Kampf is one that all residents need to watch; YouTube video clip, Part III: Citizen John Petersen

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