The city of Belgrade will no longer allow its employees to be interviewed by the Belgrade News without approval of City Manager Neil Cardwell, according to a new media policy Cardwell’s office released last week.
The city's new "Media Policy" puts the kibosh on all media contacts between city employees and reports for local newspapers, broadcast stations, magazines, or social media outlets. Gone, apparently, are the are the heady, free-wheeling days of journalists being able to pick up the phone and talk directly to whomever might be the best source of knowledge on any given topic at City Hall.
“Media representatives are asked to place their request through the City Manager’s Office in order to expedite a prompt and coordinated response,” states a copy of the city’s Media Policy sent to the Belgrade News on Friday.
It goes on to state, “The City Manager’s Office must be notified of all potentially sensitive, contentious or controversial media inquiries with respect to City activities. The City Manager’s Office will promptly identify the appropriate spokesperson and arrange for an interview or statement.”
Almost all municipalities already do this, Cardwell said, and it was already an informal policy in the city.
This is news to those of us at the Belgrade News, who are used to picking up the phone or e-mailing various department heads in the city when we need to ask a question, check a fact, or request additional information about the public’s business.
"I just want to be sure everything is accurate," Cardwell said. "The city is growing, and I need to be in the loop."
The new policy is intended to “standardize the City’s communication with the media and assure that information about the City and its policies, practices, programs, and activities are communicated properly and reported accurately," the Media Policy states.
Additionally, the document states, "The City Manager's office must be notified of all potentially sensitive, contentious, or controversial media inquiries," and then itself “arrange for an interview or statement."
In an e-mail response to questions about the new policy last week, Cardwell wrote, “Once again in its simplest form, it is to provide guidance to employees with a written administrative policy and eliminate the ‘What should I do’ and provide a path of communication for the media to receive accurate information. I asked it to be sent to the local media because I wanted to continue the open and transparent nature of Belgrade.”
When asked in a later telephone interview whether adding layers of bureaucracy to the process might actually hinder transparency, Cardwell said, "Well, that's your opinion.
"You can't walk into a school district to talk to a teacher. They take you to the principal or the superintendent. You can't walk into a Walmart and talk to random cashiers. It's a very standard policy that all organizations use," he said.
Belgrade News reporters do, in fact, often communicate directly with teachers in the local schools. However, to the recollection of the current staff, no one at the Belgrade News has ever needed to interview a Walmart cashier, so the complexities of that interaction remain a mystery.
The Central Valley Fire Department is not under the auspices of the city, but Cardwell admitted he has talked to Chief Greg Tryon about adopting the same policy.
In what now seems to be a foreshadowing of this policy, Cardwell ordered Police Chief Dustin Lensing not answer a simple question on a matter of public record that was posed by a citizen during a discussion of the city’s fireworks ordinances at the July 5 city council meeting.
Helena attorney Mike Meloy, a consulting attorney for the state Freedom of Information hotline, told the Belgrade News that state and federal laws "deal with access to meetings and to documents. It doesn’t require government to actually talk to anyone, but it's tantamount to closing a meeting. You have to be able to talk to people. What a pain to not be able to talk to anybody.
"Whether it's a meeting, a board, document or public officials, the public wants to know what is going on with their boards. This is totally inconsistent (with a free press)," Meloy opined.
Belgrade Mayor Russ Nelson told the Belgrade News, "The only people talking for the city are him (Cardwell) and me. This new policy is at the request of Neil. No one has a problem with it I don't know if he got it from a retreat or what. He requested it, and we all went along with it. We have a lot of new people in town; maybe they need a policy. I don't know if he got this from Texas or what."
Before becoming Belgrade’s city manager last October, Cardwell was the assistant city manager in Forney, Texas.
Cardwell said he heard about the idea for the new policy's framework at a city managers conference he attended in Texas, and that Forney had a similar policy when he was there.
Belgrade City Councilwoman Kristine Menicucci declined to comment on the policy. Her late husband Joe served as Belgrade City Manager for decades; she also declined to comment on what he might have thought about it.
Councilwoman Martha Sellers gave the Belgrade News a prepared statement: "As a council member I believe that the media in all forms is important to a community, especially the print medium. More voices are always better than fewer voices. People in leadership roles in the community add to the conversation. Having voices stay quiet that have experience and input isn't how I would do it."
When asked if additional layers of bureaucracy would improve transparency in city government, she replied, "Good question. But I have no comment."
City Planner Jason Karp, with whom the Belgrade News has long enjoyed a cordial relationship, also refused to comment when asked about it when the policy was made public.
Former Belgrade City Manager Ted Barkley said the policy, which he first looked at Wednesday, looks like "every model that is floating around somewhere, and the language sounds familiar."
Meloy said he has never heard of such a policy in a Montana city.
"And what works in Texas probably doesn't work anywhere else," he said with a laugh.
"I would think for the city of Belgrade, it would be better to open up communication to make their case, not the opposite – which this will have the tendency to do, to close off that venue.
"Essentially it doesn’t make any sense," he said.
Meloy specializes in open public records and access issues. A recipient of the Montana Free Press Award, he was active in drafting the “Right-to-Know” provision of the Montana Constitution, and he has been the FOIA Hotline’s retained consulting attorney for more than a decade. He has practiced law for more than 45 years, and in 2013 was honored with the Montana Trial Lawyers Career Achievement Award.