Council to take second look at its ‘gag order’

The City Council Monday agreed to take another look at and possibly revise its new “Comprehensive Communications Policy” after members of the public and the media, including a prominent columnist for the Los Angeles Times, called the policy an attempt to muzzle the press by blocking the free flow of information out of City Hall.

The policy, adopted unanimously last month, names the mayor and council members as the only city officials who may answer questions for the press about election campaigns and “political issues.” It also instructs city commissioners to refer all questions about their meetings and decision making to the chair of their respective commission. But perhaps the aspects of the policy that fuel the most anger among journalists are the requirements that city department heads obtain “the express authorization” of the city manager before answering questions from the press, and that city staff, other than department heads, not speak to the media about administrative matters at all.

Members of the press and its supporters asked the council Monday to reconsider the new policy.

“Free governments don’t need a communications policy,” said Arnold York, publisher of The Malibu Times. In addition to York, Anne Soble, publisher of the Malibu Surfside News, wrote a column that was highly critical of the new policy.

Faced with the opposition from Malibu’s two newspapers, and an embarrassing column from the Los Angeles Times’ Al Martinez, who lampooned the policy in Sunday’s paper, the council agreed to bring back the policy for further discussion.

“It is unusual that both newspapers in this town agree on one thing,” said Councilman Harry Barovsky. “We should bring it back for community input.”

Councilman Tom Hasse, who sponsored the policy, said it was “insulting” to him that people would accuse him of attempting to gag the press.

“This is an attempt to help the press do its job,” he said.

While the policy states on its face that “no department directors … shall respond to news media inquiries without the express authorization of the city manager,” Hasse said he does not believe the policy requires department heads to run to the city manager for permission to talk to the media.

But in fact, when a reporter, during a break in the council meeting, approached a department head for information on a matter within his job duties, the department head then asked City Manager Harry Peacock whether he could answer the reporter’s question. Peacock approached and listened to the question, but eventually walked away without intervening in the conversation.

When asked whether the department head was joking when he sought Peacock’s permission, the director said he was simply trying to execute instructions to staff.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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