A proposed policy currently under consideration by the Saugerties Town Board is an attempt to more clearly define what town officials can and can’t say when speaking on the town’s behalf.
Outgoing town councilman Mike MacIsaac, who said that he has been working on writing and establishing such a law for the past 18 months, said the policy was a long time coming. Although he encouraged the other members to include the policy on the agenda of the board’s Nov. 20 meeting, a consensus to do so was not reached.
“I’m disappointed. I’m on my way out, so it doesn’t matter,” said MacIsaac to Councilman John Schoonmaker during the pre-board meeting that evening. “If you’re for it, let’s put it on the agenda. Stand by your guns and put it on the agenda.”
“[Town attorney] John Greco didn’t approve it so we can’t do it this month,” said Town Supervisor Fred Costello Jr. to MacIsaac. “We all wanted a noise ordinance, we didn’t get anywhere on it.”
The drafted policy lays out parameters that employees would be asked to consider before making statements about town matters to the media and others and on social media: “Strive to focus on just the facts of the matter at hand” and to refrain from “mention[ing] their personal opinion on the matter,” the proposed policy states, and to begin any statement that conveys a personal opinion with the phrase, “I am speaking for myself, not for the Town of Saugerties.”
The policy would also prohibit town employees from “disparag[ing] their department or committee” and “discuss[ing] or display[ing] facts or items which may alter the outcome of a personnel or criminal issue.” The draft policy contains no provisions for enforcement or delineates any penalties for non-compliance.
“Us, as constituents, deserve to know why that motion that Mr. MacIsaac asked to be put on the agenda tonight didn’t make it on the agenda and who voted for it and voted against it,” said Mike Ivino, who will take up his role as town councilman in January 2020.
“There were two incidents by a department head where it seemed like he or she was speaking for the town of Saugerties,” said MacIsaac of the policy in a later interview. “[The policy is] just trying to say separate when you’re speaking for the town versus when you’re speaking for yourself.”
The draft policy states “whether Saugerties representatives are speaking for the municipality of speaking for themselves is not always clear … the difference should be judged by whether the official is wearing a certain uniform, being addressed by an official title or when they are arguably perceived as representing the Town of Saugerties.”
Costello said in a later interview that he wasn’t against the spirit of the policy, but wanted to more time to run it by town attorneys.
“I don’t see that as a bad thing at all, for them or for us,” Costello said. “I don’t want to rush it, there could be implications if we tried to impose or enforce something that has not been done properly or is not lawful — [it] could expose the town to liability. … It took a decade to do an employee handbook, that is not because anybody did not want to do it or a lack of attention for it, it took a long time to get everyone on the same page.”
Police Chief Joe Sinagra declined an opportunity to comment on the matter. But one town official, Parks and Recreation Department Superintendent Greg Chorvas, said he was open to the idea.
“I think anyone, whether they’re in the public or the private sector, when they are speaking for their position or let’s say they volunteer for multiple entities, they should express who they are speaking for,” Chorvas said. “I always have felt that one should make themselves clear if they are speaking, whether it be a position that they hold in a public position or even in a private entity if they’re not speaking for that private entity that they’re employed by they should make that known.”
It was not clear when the policy would next be considered by the town board.