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Harp Backs Smart’s Gag Order

by Thomas MacMillan | Jan 16, 2014 4:34 pm

(36) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: City Hall

Faced with a challenge from outraged critics, Mayor Toni Harp came out in support Thursday of City Clerk Michael Smart’s order that his staff not talk to the press, then offered a more nuanced view of her own on city workers’ free-speech rights.

Harp said Smart should have the ability to set the rules in his department, including his recent decision that city clerk’s office employees may not speak to reporters.

In general, Harp said, city employees should defer to department heads when it comes to talking to the press about city policies. City workers should, however, be free to talk to the press about matters that affect them personally, Harp said.

Click the play arrow to hear Harp’s comments, and her views on her staff’s decision this week to close a section of City Hall, including the public information office, to public access.

“She sounds like she’s running the Politburo or something,” Prospect Hill/Newhallville Alder Michael Stratton, author of a proposed city ordinance to ban gag orders like Smart’s, said in response to Harp’s comments on city worker freedom of speech. He called it “absolutely outrageous” that Harp would support Smart’s prohibition on workers talking to press.

Smart, Harp, and Stratton all took office Jan. 1. Smart almost immediately found himself embroiled in controversy after he created an illegal policy prohibiting his staff from handing out public documents without his permission. Click the play arrow to hear Smart talk about his policy at the time.

Smart rescinded that policy after an Independent article exposed the practice. But he kept in place a gag order preventing his staff from talking to the press.

Stratton, and other members of a newly formed “People’s Caucus” on the Board of Alders, objected to Smart’s gag order. They have submitted proposed legislation that would make such orders illegal, and a law that would eliminate the city clerk position altogether. (Click on the video to watch them storm the clerk’s office Tuesday to announce the bills.) In an interview earlier this week, Smart defended his policy.  He said government agencies need to speak with a consistent voice. When a reporter asks a question that a staffer can better answer, he will then authorize that staffer to respond, he said. But “you want to make sure you have one message. You don’t want to have people out there” confused about a government office’s position, he said.

Speaking at an unrelated event on Thursday, Harp said she had heard about the controversy over Smart’s original order but hadn’t been aware of Smart’s continued policy restricting his staff’s communication with the press.

“He is the department head for that department. He can set the rules for communication,” Harp said of Smart. “I wasn’t aware of that, but that certainly is within his responsibilities.”

Asked if she thinks the same rule should apply to her other departments, Harp said city workers should not be quoted on “formal department policy if they don’t know what it is. Certainly if they’re speaking about something that only affects them as individuals, but not the policy of the city, they should be able to talk to the press.

“But only certain people can talk on behalf of departments,” she said. “That’s normally the department head, unless the department head has delegated that to someone else.”

Harp said she hadn’t heard about the legislation submitted by the People’s Caucus, to prohibit gag orders and do away with the city clerk position. “I would have to look at them,” she said when asked her position. This is the first I’m hearing about either one of them.” Click here and here for stories in two media outlets reporting on the People’s Caucus proposals. Click here to sample public commentary on the proposals.

“Certainly people are allowed to set the rules in their own departments, but not when those rules run counter to the constitution and the best interests of New Haven,” Stratton said. “People don’t lose their free speech rights when they go to work for New Haven.”

It’s important that civil servants be able to “tell us their opinions,” Stratton said. “This isn’t like the secret ingredients of Coke or something.” City workers are “doing the people’s business” and often know a lot more than elected officials, Stratton said.

“I do think workers talk at their own risk,” Stratton said. “If someone speaks and is undermining their boss or saying things that aren’t true, I think they can be terminated.” The city can respond to things that city workers say, but you can’t put a “prior restraint on free speech,” Stratton said.

“This is not an Eastern Bloc country where we have to protect our alders from any insubordination,” Stratton said. Workers are “not immune if they say things that are damaging, untrue, or libelous. They speak to the press at their own risk.”

Stratton called Harp’s support of Smart’s order “a horrible way to start your term.”

“It’s frightening that she would be that tone deaf,” he said.

Jeanne Leblanc, spokeswoman for the Connecticut ACLU, said municipal employees’ rights to free speech are murky. “The free speech rights of public employees when they are speaking in an official capacity is a very complex area of the law,” she said. “There is no bright line on this.”

First Amendment cases involving city workers have gone both ways, so it’s impossible to predict whether a court would rule Smart’s policy is unconstitutional, she said. “It’s not a real obvious rule, as there are in some other free speech cases.”

Keycard Access

In another controversial move under the new administration, newly installed deputy community services head Jackie James instructed staff to seal off part of City Hall, making it accessible only to people with key cards. The act prompted heated criticism.

Asked about James’ order Thursday, Harp said she hadn’t been aware of it. (Click here to read a previous story about it. Click here to sample the flood of public comments reacting to it.)

Harp said presidents of municipal unions met with her on her first or second day in office and expressed concern that “people can just wander through City Hall.”

City Hall needs to have a good “security plan” and “access control,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone wants to stop people from coming in. We just want to know who’s coming in,” Harp said.

She said a new committee chaired by police Chief Dean Esserman will look at how to secure City Hall. “The concern is not to keep the press out, but that people could just wander through. We’ve had a number of pocketbooks stolen.”

The goal is to prevent theft while allowing people with city business—including the press—to have access to City Hall, Harp said.

She said limiting entry to people with keycard access is not the final answer to the question of City Hall security.

 

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posted by: robn on January 16, 2014  5:00pm

Department heads should instruct employees about the meaning of policy and if employees encounter something they’re unfamiliar with, they can refer questions to the department head. Red herring though. The problem here isn’t that Mike Smart wasn’t trying to stop an employee from editorializing about city policy, he was trying to stop a city hall employee from telling someone what policy is. He’s mad that the press was shown a memo in which he illegally told his staff to route all information requests through him personally. This isn’t cool and he and Mayor arp know it isn’t.

posted by: New Haven Nuisance on January 16, 2014  5:08pm

I do not understand how on December 31st, 2013 City Hall was safe and did not need to put public areas under lock and key, but on January 1st, 2014 City Hall instantly became a huge target for crime and must be on perennial lockdown. What changed? Why does our Mayor lock down City Hall and find it necessary to always be chaperoned by New Haven police? Does she not feel safe in the city she is the Mayor of, does she not trust the residents of her own city, does no one else find her mentality troubling?

posted by: FacChec on January 16, 2014  5:18pm

I carefully listened to the Harp video above and agree with the Mayor’s comments on this subject.”“He is the department head for that department. He can set the rules for communication,”.
This type of rule is universal in both private and public ventures. It was certainly enforced under the DeStefano administration, the Mayor could barely retain a Mayoralty spokesperson for two years.

This so called gag order is not anything new and should not be viewed as a restriction of first amendment rights.

Michael Smart first spoke out of order and when challenged, he corrected his mistake. Smart left in place the requirement that all official legal and press inquiries be answered by the department head, Harp agreed, and so do I period!

posted by: Anderson Scooper on January 16, 2014  5:24pm

@robn—

My sentiments exactly. It was an information lock-down, not a mild directive that Smart be the only one to speak for the department.

I do wish we could have seen all three of the memos from last week.

posted by: Michaela on January 16, 2014  5:35pm

It’s definitely troubling and kind of hilarious/insulting to those of us who live here.  I feel like this mayor and city clerk and much of the administration are not actually “for the people.”  We are a stepping stone in their careers, though I’m afraid they will be standing on us for too long.

posted by: ohnonotagain on January 16, 2014  5:44pm

What in the world is all this paranoia about with security? And why would Mayor Harp say she wasn’t aware of Jackie James actions yet talked about pocket books being stolen which was part of James drive for what seems like locking down offices. In fact the mayor started most statements in response to what the reported was asking about with ‘I wasn’t aware’. This all sounds like just nonsense and I just don’t understand how things can change so drastically from one mayor to the next about security.  The one thing I do agree with is that department heads should be the one commenting to the press about matters in an office/department if the employee is on the work clock. But if it is for information that is under FOI act then that employee should and must turn over that information or document requested.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on January 16, 2014  6:25pm

Hey Thomas,

My understanding is that a gag order would direct employees to stop talking to the press entirely. This does not sound like the directive that the Mayor is supporting. 

It sounds like the Mayor supports the right for a supervisor to instruct employees to not speak on behalf of the City if they are not fully informed but not to stop them from giving their own opinion.  In personal opinion that is a good policy for any organization to have. 

As someone who is deeply concerned about Mr Smart’s initial directive I think its important that we not conflate the two.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on January 16, 2014  6:36pm

Wow, that was fast. Michael Stratton has wasted no time in exposing his position. Now that he has determined that public office will be his next goal in life, he has moved quickly. And successfully.

He helped Justin Elicker with money, and people (Stratton’s road race volunteers, and his office staff, are quickly converted to tasks geared to running a political campaign), so he, Stratton, could then “run” for alder person in the slot vacated by Elicker. Stratton won that election, because no one else opposed him, and ran against him.

Elicker out, Stratton in. Elicker loses the election, perfect, it will be easier for him to oppose Harp in the next Mayoral election, which appears to have started already, if one reads between the lines in this article.

Bing unaware of his motivations, would make some of the quotes in this article seem to have some type of relevance, even though they are inaccurate and highly biased. Being aware of what is actually happening casts an entirely different light on what is said and why.

The initial denial to release “public” documents is appropriate, and as an attorney Stratton should be aware of this. Review is done of documents, to insure that all legal obligations are met, and that documents that should no be released, are not released, as an error can result in litigation against the city, which every taxpayer would be obligated to pay for. From legal fees to any possible settlements. Smart’s “gag” order, as it has been characterized by the local “chicken littles” of modern day journalism, is not news, or presentation of a news story, but more of assisting the propaganda of those that want this Mayor fail, and have already started such campaigns, although they cannot make the next two years pass any faster.

If this is the start of a pattern, repeated articles, of all types of exaggerated claims, and grandiose headlines, in respect to Harp will just continue.

posted by: HewNaven on January 16, 2014  6:55pm

Asked about James’ order Thursday, Harp said she hadn’t been aware of it.

Harp said doesn’t know about James shutting her office to the public due to pocketbooks being stolen.

She said a new committee chaired by police Chief Dean Esserman will look at how to secure City Hall. “The concern is not to keep the press out, but that people could just wander through. We’ve had a number of pocketbooks stolen.”

Now she does know about the pocketbooks being stolen?! What is going on? Did anyone report these thefts to the police?

posted by: westvilleresident on January 16, 2014  8:13pm

For all of the items Mayor Harp hasn’t heard of, I recommend either she, or someone who briefs her daily, should read the Independent.
Sheesh…

posted by: Serf of New Haven on January 16, 2014  8:27pm

These people are public employees payed by the citizens of New Haven with hard earned tax dollars. No city employee has any right to silence any other public employee from talking to anyone they want, from mayors to janitors. These people don’t respect democracy, freedom of the press, checks and balances, have no sense of who butters their bread, and seem to believe only in dictatorship, tyranny and fear. We, the public, need full transparency 24 hours a day.

This is not a private corporation or a third world banana republic. This is the city of New Haven. Peoples lives are not at stake. No national security threat! As much as they get away with these tactics at all levels of government across this country, we need to draw a line in the sand. Say no to censorship of speech in all offices operated and paid for by citizens of New Haven. If they ignore us, get rid of this Mayor in the next election and find leadership that respects the peoples rights to be informed and understands that government in a US city should never stoop to the level of a gulag. They are servants to those who pay their salary and pension.

The People’s Caucus on Smart’s gag order have submitted proposed legislation to make these orders illegal, and a law to eliminate the city clerk position altogether. This is great news!

Keep it up Peoples Caucus! In fact keep proposing laws to eliminate positions all across the board if they serve no useful purpose other than expanding the secret city and the closed door dealings of the Harp/Destefano administration.
Save us from bankruptcy in the process. Win win.

Come on people! What are they hiding! What are these secrets? Are they fighting the War on Terror? Will we be able to enter our own city hall in a few years? Our city is small enough to stop this and have a local government that is open and transparent for its’ owners, the citizens, all the time. You just have to believe you live in a democracy to make it happen.

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 16, 2014  8:30pm

So, try this one then,.....(everybody together!)

Dear (public official).

Under the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting these public records:

(proceed to list records—general requests are best, specifics get denied due to lawyerly semantics)

Failure to respond to this request in three business days is a violation of the statutes set forth in the CT Freedom of Information Act, and will be subject to further process.

Thank you for kind attention to my request for Public Records.

Sincerrely,

Joe Taxpayer.

ps.  It is really that simple, folks….. once the request is submitted, due diligence will be required on your part to circumvent the impending run-araound.

Godspeed.

Bill

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 16, 2014  8:36pm

On a totally different note, somebody should really hire a body language expert to parse through our Mayors funny looks and evasiveness.

She is speaking volumes outside of her dialog.

There is a cognitive dissonance apparent in her public dealings.  She doesn’t even believe what she is saying.

There is certainly NO VISION.

posted by: eastshore on January 16, 2014  10:03pm

In the video My Mayor talks about our city being one security guard-type person short at the front door of town hall.  I can only assume this position was lost to some form of a budget cut.  So maybe she could donate her $60K+ a year driver to the cause.  I mean, the position will be filled by a police officer, so playing security guard will be a step closer to utilizing the skills he or she acquired when the citizens of NH paid for her or his training.  That way the good citizens of NH will be able to access more parts of our own municipal building and the employees might feel safer than they did about 17 days ago.

posted by: Xavier on January 16, 2014  10:34pm

Wow, the inmates have taken over the asylum.

Mayor Harp has this anxious look that makes me feel anxious. But when I listen to her, she makes some reasonable points.

But I still think One City Henry could manage all these distractions and straighten things and certain people up quick.

Where is the Mayor’s COS? She shouldn’t have to be dealing with this silly stuff.

One City Henry, young, bold, and to the point.

posted by: Guest on January 16, 2014  10:54pm

Harp said she hadn’t heard about the legislation submitted by the People’s Caucus, to prohibit gag orders and do away with the city clerk position. “I would have to look at them,” she said when asked her position. This is the first I’m hearing about either one of them.”

Can you say COMPLETELY OUT OF TOUCH.
I work 12 hours a day and rarely catch a headline and even I “heard” about it. I agree with City workers not talking with the press as statements can become misconstrued and taken out of context very easily, BUT the hidden agenda behind this seems a bit much. It will be interesting how this plays out.
The security issue is just that. I have worked in many offices in town that have the same “wandering” problems. Thieves looking for anything they can grab quickly. I feel this was for safety and to keep out the thieves not to keep the public out. Shows how rampant crime really is in New Haven.

@ scooper FOI my friend - written request for memos should be complied with. If its not then you know something is askew.

posted by: citoyen on January 16, 2014  11:51pm

This is all quite fascinating.

Mayor Harp starts this interview looking frightened and confused, when the questions are about gag orders, which she seems to know little about, but then she becomes more relaxed and confident when talking about the question of access to City Hall, which she *has* talked about, to some extent, with her staff, although she knows nothing about what Jackie James had actually done on the subject.

Clearly Mayor Harp does not read the New Haven Independent—whose readers know all about what she was being asked about.

But do any members of her staff inform themselves?  Is she getting any briefings from them?  How well does she know what’s going on in her city?  How well *will* she be informed as the days and months go on?

posted by: Charl on January 17, 2014  1:37am

“First I am hearing of this.”

Just say that, and you can get away with anything.


Get ready for an AWFUL next two years, New Haven.  You deserve it, and it is coming.

/Please do not censor my comments, thank you\

posted by: obi on January 17, 2014  6:19am

The city of New Haven is RAPIDLY becoming like a former New Haven Supt. of Schools said when John Daniels was mayor.  AND in just SEVENTEEN days…. He stated, “the city of New Haven is a city without a director or direction.” How he described the mayor as printed in the New Haven Register can’t be printed here but holds true of this mayor.  And what a ticket he drafted out of here.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 17, 2014  7:03am

I am baffled at her response.

I can not see how she did not know. As Mayor she should be made aware of constitutional violations.

posted by: Theodora on January 17, 2014  8:23am

This is a misleading and sensational headline. Is it going to be this way for the next two years just because your favored son Justin didn’t get elected?

How many folks of color work at the Independent?

posted by: robn on January 17, 2014  8:38am

Stratton’s Politburo analogy only touched on the CENSORSHIP half of the issue. There’s also the issue of SPYING. Will the City Clerk’s office be used to monitor the flow of information for political purposes?

posted by: kenneth_krayeske on January 17, 2014  9:11am

To JustAnotherTaxPayer on January 16, 2014 6:36pm:

Alderman Michael Stratton won the seat vacated by Alfreda Edwards (Ward 19), and that Alderwoman Anna Festa won Ward 10, which was previously Mr. Elicker’s seat (and before Elicker, it was held by the Green Party’s Allan Brison). 

Opinions carry greater weight when bolstered by correct facts.  Opinions buttressed with incorrect facts are easier to dismiss.

posted by: absolutmakes on January 17, 2014  9:54am

This is all so frightening.

Mayor Harp’s default response to direct questions is some variation of, “I don’t know…This is the first I’m hearing of it…I’ll have to look into it and get back to you.” This appears to be par for the course, as she offered this reply throughout the campaign and, now, into the Mayor’s office.

Why frightening? Well, she is either being intentionally evasive and just deflecting the question…not wanting to provide a simple, direct answer. OR, she really doesn’t know what’s happening within her department.

Which is worse?

If she really doesn’t know what’s happening in her office, maybe her security detail can take on this task and provide daily briefs on local news.

BTW, she looked incredibly uncomfortable in this video. Eyes constantly darting back and forth, seemed very unsure of herself. Not sure what to make of it, just an observation.

posted by: Greg-Morehead on January 17, 2014  10:08am

Ok, I wasn’t going to comment on this thread, BUT, I just saw the video above with Mayor Harp.

Hold up…

Did anyone catch when she said, on the 2nd, I met with the Unions and THEY told me that they were concerned about security in City Hall…
When did the Unions become security guards now? There are security guards in City Hall and a Police substation, and none of the trained professionals had any security concerns in city Hall, ONLY the Unions and Jackie James office wing? 
How is it that this was NEVER an issue before(even while Jackie was waiting to be hired)BUT after she takes over the role, there are security concerns????

How is it also that Mayor Harp admitted to sitting down with the Unions and them telling her about so called security concerns,(where at still is a mystery)BUT she didn’t know anything about the door being locked to that wing. If I am not mistaken, but when I was in office and frequented that wing of City Hall, it said on the outside door, Mayors staff or something to that effect. Shouldn’t the Mayor know whats going on in that part of the wing?????????

You just can’t make up this stuff!!

posted by: leibzelig on January 17, 2014  10:56am

Time for a Hebrew lesson. The word for the day: Balagan, meaning messed up, out of control situation, SNAFU. This word should be posted on every desk in City Hall.
Also, it might be helpful if our new mayor and some other city officials were to be given this clip of John Banner’s Sgt. Hans Schultz from “Hogan’s Heroes” saying “I know nothing”” to use as an answer to questions from reporters and citizens.
http://www.hark.com/clips/stcglgpcfd-i-know-nothing

posted by: JMS on January 17, 2014  11:43am

I told you so.

(My new default post for every forthcoming Harp administration shenanigan story)

posted by: alex on January 17, 2014  11:53am

Toni didn’t hear about the NHI’s manufactured scandal that even the ACLU spokeswoman couldn’t get upset about. Toni’s a busy woman dealing with real issues that actually affect people so she’s not on top of the latest conspiracy theories brewing among the NHI’s anonymous commenters. This should be no surprise.

Mike Stratton, of course, comes in with the USSR comparisons. Because when I think about the Politburo, I think about whether assistant town clerks are allowed to speak on behalf of the clerk’s office.

It’s really shameful that people who didn’t support Toni in the mayoral race are so set on spinning every misunderstanding that happens in the city into the next Watergate. Two years isn’t a lot of time to govern, especially if your opponents insist on running a perpetual smear campaign.

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 17, 2014  12:25pm

Alex,

I have a feeling it’s going to be a hilarious two years!

posted by: Fairhavener on January 17, 2014  3:05pm

As a teen a teacher often encouraged me to read the newspaper everyday to stay informed.

I question how the Mayor of a major city does not know what was major news on both news outlets of record in the City she governs? Ignorance indicates a lack of resourcefulness or incompetence perhaps, and evasiveness the ability to avoid telling the truth. Which is worse? In the words of Toni Harp, I don’t know.

posted by: JMS on January 17, 2014  4:13pm

alex,

In politics I have come to learn that public image and perception are often windows into reality. Toni Harp has a bad and regular habit of feigning ignorance and/or downplaying controversy. How many more in a long series of “misunderstandings” have to occur before it stops being a “wild conspiracy theory” and people see things for what they really are. And it’s not Orwellian paranoia for New Haven citizens to have legitimate concerns over basic FOI rights and access to city government. And it’s certainly not a smear campaign for the NHI to report on it. If you think everyone on the NHI is crazy why do you read the articles and bother posting comments?

posted by: yim-a on January 17, 2014  4:53pm

Folks, there’s no conspiracy or intentional malice.  Mayor Harp is simply overwhelmed and disorganized.  Much in the way her campaign was (as were her debate performances).  Going to be a long 2 (4,6,8) years.

posted by: ElmCitier on January 17, 2014  5:26pm

I have to agree with one poster here: the article is badly misnamed.  Harp is correct on the specifics here: supervisors should be empowered to have all press (as opposed to private citizen) questions of department policy directed to them, unless they have decided to make the policies themselves public—which they should. The original requirement that all document request go through his hands, however, was entirely wrong. Regardless of whether the mayor looks like a deer in the headlights or not, we should miss the bigger picture of what is the right thing to do here.  The problem with non-supervisory staff answering press question on departmental policy is less one of “leaking,” I think—that can always be done off the record in my view—than of misinforming the public—asserting dept. policies that in fact may not be the case or not even yet in place.

posted by: poetbum on January 17, 2014  10:23pm

I have a crazy suggestion:  what if, instead of a gag order, the City Clerk made it a requirement for his workers to say ‘I don’t know, let me find out the answer’ when dealing with questions from the public?

posted by: William Kurtz on January 18, 2014  11:59am

Has this area of city hall traditionally been open to the public? I ask because two years or so ago, I was looking for a place to schedule a meeting and since the conference rooms were booked, someone on the city hall staff—I’m afraid I can’t remember who—allowed us to use a conference room in that wing and as I recall, even then it was secured and latecomers needed someone to let them in. But my impression then was that it wasn’t intended to be a generally accessible area.

Like Mr. Berkowitz noted above, the ‘gag order’ seems like standard operating procedure for any organization but the city clerk’s prior review policy for releasing public records is troubling.

posted by: Guido Brunetti on January 19, 2014  11:31am

Mr. Kurtz, If your meeting was scheduled after 5 pm, the doors are on auto timer that locks them.

Thefts of staff personal belongings occurred over the 20 years of the DeStefano administration, yet no restricted access policy was issued.

I find it remarkable that this policy was created by an employee who is on probation, serving in an “acting” capacity thus temporary and needs to pass a civil service test before being considered as a full-time employee.

This would never fly in the private sector. What is this really all about?

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