SOUTHINGTON — A policy on communications with the public and town employees split the Town Council along party lines this week.
The policy governing Town Council conduct includes a prohibition on disclosing confidential information “to the press or the Internet” before such information is officially released by town staff. It also directs town councilors to send questions for department leaders to Town Manager Mark Sciota and not to hold conversations with town employees on policy that might violate bargaining agreements.
The policy prohibits councilors from interfering with the town’s emergency management team as well.
Republicans said the written policy simply codifies what’s been existing practice. Town Council Chairwoman Victoria Triano said it’s a good reminder for veteran councilors as well as a notification for newer councilors.
“It’s not directed at anyone individually,” Triano said. “It’s here for clarification only so that we’ll be uniform in our response and uniform in getting information out.”
She and other councilors have received complaints about conflicting information being released by town leaders, Triano said.
Democrats said they didn’t have time to consider the policy when it was released at Monday night’s meeting and criticized it as too sweeping and a change from practice.
Jack Perry, a new councilor and Democrat who joined the board in November, said the policies seemed to target his efforts to inform residents on social media as well as his presence at last week’s COVID test kit giveaway.
“I think this is tying our hands as elected officials,” Perry said. “I’m 31 years old. I use different techniques and methods.”
The council’s six Republicans prevailed in a vote to adopt the policy over the objections of the council’s three Democrats during Monday’s meeting. Democrats also unsuccessfully tried to table the vote until a future meeting.Miscommunication, residents’ confusion
Triano said residents were confused about whether the town was salting roads during a recent storm.
During the COVID test kit distribution, police closed the line briefly to allow buses to get through. Police announced that test kits had all been distributed, which wasn’t accurate. The distribution resumed and police Chief Jack Daly later released an apology to any residents who didn’t get a kit due to the confusion.
Triano said while that didn’t involve elected officials, it showed the importance of getting out accurate information. Town councilors should use information coming from Sciota or another town leader.
“We want to make sure what the people receive is accurate and clear and doesn’t cause confusion or misunderstanding,” Triano said.
Paul Chaplinsky, Town Council vice chairman and a Republican, also said the policy clarifies how councilors should go about asking questions concerning town operations. Both Chaplinsky and Sciota said questions should be directed to him as the council’s employee as well as the manager for all other town employees.
“The manager has to understand what his bosses are asking his subordinates. That’s management 101,” Sciota said.
“There has to be respect for the employees of the town,” Chaplinsky said.
Perry and other Democrats questioned whether they’d need to bring every single question to Sciota, such as financial questions during budget time.
“As an elected official I can’t reach out to a department head while a resident can reach out to a department head? It makes no sense,” Perry said.
Chris Palmieri, a Democratic councilor and former council chairman, said he didn’t understand why the policy was being pushed. After Monday’s meeting, Palmieri said the restrictions on councilors wasn’t simply a codification of existing practice.
Perry said communication methods have changed and elected officials need to use new methods, such as social media, to reach constituents.
“I think this (policy) is an attempt to stop the transparency I’m trying to bring between government and the residents and the voters,” he said.
Perry has clashed with Republican leadership over subcommittee appointments, minority representation and other issues.