Tay council debates who should speak to journalists

·6 min read

Should councillors be talking to the media independently?

That was the second time in a week the matter had come up before a North Simcoe council, after it had been discussed at the Penetanguishene council Wednesday night.

This time, it was Tay Township's deputy mayor that was asking if it was best for the mayor or chief administrative officer to respond to media requests when representing the municipality.

Once again, the media request was a yearend survey sent out to all council members by MidlandToday's Community Editor Andrew Philips.

"He didn't email it to council; he emailed it to all of us," said Coun. Jeff Bumstead. "I could see all the recipients. The way I took it is that they were looking for a specific response from all of council. I didn't see any harm in the questions. I didn't see anything specific that was going against the township. It was just the general feel of how I felt as a councillor."

He then talked about a MidlandToday reporter reaching out to him for a story he had brought to council's attention (poppy masks being made by a local resident).

"She had reached out and I asked the mayor about it," said Bumstead. "She was just looking for an opinion from me on a specific topic. The advice I got was that media is asking a question there's no problem is answering it."

"If we want to clamp down and direct media to the mayor and CAO, I don't have a problem with it," he added. "If it's not okay for individual councillors to answer behalf of the township, then we can have it in the code of conduct."

Fellow Coun. Paul Raymond also talked about what the integrity commissioner had outlined in the code of conduct policy.

"We do have a right to an opinion as long as we make it clear it is our opinion and not the township and council as a whole," he said. "That is when the CAO or mayor come in. It's very important we take great measures to make sure that distinction is made.

"As far as the other social media, I'm sure there will be other questions there," added Raymond. "We are allowed to be approached for our opinion but our opinion only."

Coun. Mary Warnock said she had sought clarification on the survey, asking if it was to be based on personal opinions or a council view.

"I did want to clarify that before I answered it," she said. "If it's a message coming from council or township as a whole, it should come from the CAO or mayor. You want your message to have some control and precision."

CAO Lindsay Barron agreed that the councillors had raised some good points about distinguishing between an independent opinion and a township stance.

"A clear distinction is if he/she is responding as an individual member of council or on behalf of the township," she said. "In the second case, it should be coming from the mayor or myself."

Deputy Mayor Gerard LaChapelle said maybe the next time a reporter reaches out to an individual councillor, he/she can seek direction from the CAO.

"I would suggest we should contact the CAO to find out if we can speak to it individually," he said.

That didn't sit well with Raymond.

"I don't go to the CAO for permission on anything, with all due respect to the CAO," he said. "We are allowed to be individuals. If we're going to go on an endeavour like this, we give a heads-up to the CAO and mayor. If they feel it's not beneficial to the community on the whole, they can let us know. We all want betterment for the township and we all have different ideas of how that can be accomplished."

The conversation then turned toward answering questions posed by residents.

"A lot of times we get emails from customers/residents, what do we think as council is best direction?" said LaChapelle.

Coun. Sandy Talbot shared her process around that.

"What I always do is if I get an email, I will forward it to a staff member," she said. "It's worked for me for all these years and that's best practice when it comes to residential inquiries."

Raymond said each situation is unique.

"There's a lot of different types of communications from residents, sometimes it's a question, sometimes they're in a situation where they're at odds with staff," he said. "They approach us as councillors to try and intervene to get the two parties talking. I think that, also, is our role. At the end of the day, we're the bridge between residents and staff and the services they provide."

Barron said she hoped residents would reach out to staff before taking matters to their councillor.

"Often times, I get involved when the councillor gets involved," she said. "I'd like to see my position as facilitator before council intervenes. If the resident wants to talk to you after, by all means. As far as being copied on the response, I'd really like to see where we get to a point where a councillor forwards it to staff and lets staff handle it."

Raymond said when residents reach out to him, it's after they've reached a dead-end with staff.

"When the two parties get talking to each other, I will back out and just need to know it's been resolved," he said, adding he didn't think it was pertinent for councillors to get into the weeds of matters.

"When I do talk to residents, they're not aware of the structure of staff," added Raymond. "If we had an opportunity to simplify that structure, to let them know which way to go, maybe that would simplify it."

Then councillors discussed behaviour on social media.

"It has to do with Facebook use so we don't get ourselves in a situation," said LaChapelle.

Mayor Ted Walker said he would definitely like directions around that incorporated in the municipal code of conduct.

"I have seen some instances where the line has been crossed," he said without mentioning specifics. "The unfortunate part of that is that those that don't use Facebook don't have a chance to give their opinion or correct any errors. I think discussions of that nature need to be held here and not on Facebook."

All councillors agreed that the communications specialist should help prepare some do's and don't's for council surrounding social media use.

"All they are is a tool to facilitate you," said Raymond. "We already have standards, a code of conduct, that as councillors we're supposed to follow wherever we are. It's easy when you're on social media to get dragged into a fight. You have to know when to stop."

Daryl O'Shea, general manager, corporate services manager of technology services, indicated such an endeavour was already underway and would soon be brought to council's attention.

Mehreen Shahid, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, OrilliaMatters.com