Council retreats on communications policy

While not acknowledging it was giving any ground, the City Council Monday retreated from a new communications policy that had strictly limited how city officials and staff could respond to questions from the news media.

The policy, as unanimously adopted last month, named the mayor and council members as the only city officials who could answer questions from the press about election campaigns and “political issues.” It also instructed city commissioners to refer all questions about their meetings and decision making to the chair of their respective commissions. And it required city department heads to obtain “the express authorization” of the city manager before answering questions from the press.

But for the first time since this policy was publicly aired, its author, Councilman Tom Hasse, said Monday it was intended only to instruct the city receptionist on how to direct telephone calls from the news media.

The council agreed to add language to the policy limiting its application to press inquiries that go through the city receptionist. Also deleted was the language instructing city department heads to obtain the “express authorization” of the city manager before answering questions from the media.

While Monday marked the first occasion for this new, narrower reading of the policy, Hasse adamantly insisted that it had applied only to the city receptionist.

“I’m incredibly disappointed at the level of distortion of this policy,” he said.

Hasse was also smarting from criticism of the policy by prominent Los Angeles Times columnist Al Martinez, who had said Hasse was on vacation and did not return his telephone calls. Hasse said he was in the Midwest caring for an ailing parent.

“He involved my personal life, and I resent it,” he said.

Councilman Harry Barvosky, who voted against the policy because he does not think the city should have a press relations policy, said he was sorry Hasse had been personally attacked by Martinez.

“But we all get slammed in the press, and we all get nasty letters written about us and our families,” he said. “That’s the price of being on the City Council.”

Councilwoman Joan House said she opposed the policy because of the concern it has caused among city staff members. She said staffers have asked her whether they would be punished for answering questions from the press.

Indeed, recent calls by reporters to staff members other than City Manager Harry Peacock were repeatedly referred to Peacock, despite what the city manager said at Monday’s meeting was his open-ended directive to department heads to talk to the press.

Planning Commissioner Ken Kearsley told the council he understood that the former policy required him to refer all calls to the Planning Commission chair.

“If you say it says something else, it’s pure sophistry,” he said.

Mayor Walt Keller said he wanted to clear up the confusion, and he suggested the language that would narrow the policy’s application. The council approved the changes on a 3-2 vote, with House and Barovsky dissenting.

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

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