City government in Pittsfield is now operating under a new media protocol that has raised transparency concerns among some.
The policy put in place last month aims to streamline information from city departments to members of the media by funneling press releases and interview requests through the mayor’s office. Julia Sabourin became Mayor Dan Bianchi’s administrative assistant in May. Under the once informal, but now formal written policy, she sends out the press releases and handles questions city employees may have regarding media requests.
“Things have been running a lot more smoothly and we’ve been getting I think a lot more people involved in the press than were before,” Sabourin said. “Sometimes reporters have relationships with certain people in City Hall and they don’t always get to hear all sides of the story so we’ve been able to connect reporters with everyone involved in a project.”
A letter from Mayor Bianchi recently published in The Berkshire Eagle said the policy was meant to increase transparency. The mayor went on to question “Can there be complete transparency when an issue is partially examined by a reporter and then editorialized by the newspaper’s management?” Bill Everhart has been The Eagle’s editorial page editor for 19 years.
“We always try and get every side of every story,” Everhart said. “And the best way to get every side of every story is with open communication and complete transparency to whatever extent is possible. So if the mayor has that concern his policy is not going to address it. It will probably make it even more difficult to get every side.”
An Eagle editorial published five days before the mayor’s letter questioned why the policy came about now during Mayor Bianchi’s second term.
“It’s really no secret that the mayor is not a great fan of dealing with the press [and] is suspicious I think of The Eagle in general,” said Everhart.
Everhart says in general The Eagle’s reporters haven’t had any issues getting information from department heads understanding total access isn’t guaranteed. He questions whether that will continue if department heads must relay information they give to the media to the mayor’s office or get permission from the mayor’s office before doing an interview as stated in the policy.
“We do want access and we had it before,” Everhart said. “I think now it’s going to be a really constraining affect. They are going to be intimidated about what they say and if they say anything.”
Sabourin says the policy was put in place because city employees increasingly had questions about how to respond to reporters, especially those from markets like Albany and Springfield who may not be as familiar with Pittsfield officials.
John Krol is currently a Pittsfield City Councilor. He is the creator and the main host of the radio talk show, Good Morning, Pittsfield, which has been on the air since 2006. Krol worked as the city’s public affairs coordinator from 2005 to 2007 under Mayor James Ruberto before becoming the media relations manager at Berkshire Healthcare Systems. Krol also previously served as WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief. He says he has no issue with having a protocol, but it depends on how it is acted on. Krol says city employees have told him they cannot appear on his show even though they have appeared multiple times before.
“Those individuals have been asked not to appear on my particular program,” Krol said. “That has been a policy that even came before this written policy from this administration.”
Krol had reached out to those individuals without going through the mayor’s office—something he says the mayor did not agree with.
“A member of the media would recognize that it is not your responsibility to follow the administration’s protocol,” Krol said. “It’s the administration’s obligation to follow their own protocol. So if you reach out to an individual to speak with that individual then it’s on that individual to follow through with the protocol and make sure that the internal process is followed.”
Blogger and former newspaperman Dan Valenti says his website was blocked on City Hall computers and has since been unblocked. Sabourin denies that ever happened. Valenti, who refers to Mayor Bianchi as “The Empty Suit” on his website and talk show, says he has been denied interviews with Bianchi for asking tough questions.
“If the city decides through the mayor that a certain reporter, broadcaster or member of the media is quote unquote unfriendly, they’re not going to get a call back,” said Valenti.
Mayor Bianchi did not return a call for comment in time for this broadcast.