At their regular meeting on Monday, Oct. 25, the Selectboard discussed, but did not agree on, a potential policy for communicating with the press.
The discussion came after weeks of criticism by former chair and now regular Selectboard member Matt Krasnow, who chastised The News extensively in both public and private emails in response to press inquiries surrounding his mid-session resignation and other town matters.
It also followed The News’ Oct. 14 request via the Freedom of Information Act to obtain emails regarding town policies and procedures relating to municipal business.
At the meeting, Chair James Faulkner said the Selectboard does not currently have a policy for communicating with the press.
“We certainly don’t want to stifle anybody’s comments, individually or as a whole,” Faulkner said regarding board members’ freedom to speak to the press. “Anybody can still speak individually if they like and it’s up to them. But we’re trying to figure out how the Selectboard as a whole should be responding.”
When Faulker asked if any member of the board was interested in creating such a policy, Krasnow said that he felt the board should have a press policy on the books.
“When I was chair, what I was really grappling with the most was when I would receive specific questions from any news outlet about what the board’s position is or what the town’s position is,” Krasnow said. “I wasn’t really able to represent that position because only a quorum of the board can represent the Selectboard or the town.
It was always a dilemma of, how do you respond to the press in a timely way given that they have pressure for deadlines going to print without overstepping the authority as an individual Selectboard member not able to represent the town or Selectboard.”
Krasnow suggested creating policies on how to deal with the media not just for the Selectboard, but for each individual town board and committee to “really differentiate the way in which their committee or board can represent comments or answer questions that represent that board or committee, versus making comments to the press as individuals.”
Selectboard member Lewis Mudge questioned if Chairman Faulkner could speak to the media on behalf of the board.
“Granted you are just one of five, but on the other hand, you are the chair,” Mudge said. “I have always assumed that the chair could be in the position to speak for the board. But getting a quorum on a journalist’s question is going to be tricky. Then we have emails, and those emails also violate open meeting laws.”
“It’s tricky,” Chairman Faulkner said. “If I’m the chair, and if I get a question from the press, it is easier if I know what the consensus of the board is on this particular issue. But there are also challenges there because [reporters] have deadlines. They are calling and they need to have an answer right now. And I understand that completely because that’s how they make their living. All I want to know is, how would you [the Selectboard] like the chair to respond? That would be in the policy.”
Vice-Chair Frank Tenney said that the chair of the board should not respond for the whole board unless the board gives him the consensus to represent them.
“To start with, if you look at the selectboard manual, except for the powers that we have bestowed upon you as chair in our rules of procedure, you are just another member of the board just like everybody else,” Tenney said. “If [the reporter] was asking, how does the board feel or what does it say, or how does the Town of Charlotte feel about this, what their consensus is, you would have to say ‘I am one member. I can give you my personal opinion of what I believe, but I cannot give you the position of the town or the board unless we discuss it.’”
The possibility of holding press conferences was also raised at the meeting.
“I recollect when I first got on the board in 2014 that John Hammer would sit at board meetings,” Krasnow said. “He would ask lots of questions for clarification for the stories he knew that he wanted to print on his deadline schedule that we were not aware of. We answered every question he had. I really encourage any clarifying questions that have been at the board meetings that we have as much as possible in real time. I think that is the function of the press corps and it’s a model that we see at every level of government.”
In a previous email, Krasnow encouraged this reporter to ask all questions during the public comments section during Selectboard meetings.
At the Oct. 25 meeting, this reporter was allowed to ask only two questions during public comment.
The board did not make any decision at the meeting.
Faulkner contacted The News by phone the day after the meeting and stated once again that the Selectboard does not have a press policy.
The new chair said that, going forward, he hoped to maintain a good relationship and open communication with The News and said he would respond to press inquiries “with as much honesty and transparency as I can.”
“There are some issues where the Selectboard meets and they all agree on something, or the majority agrees,” Faulkner said in a second phone interview on Wednesday. “In the past we had the chair speak to the press if the press gives a call or if we want to call the press. I just wanted to make sure if they wanted to continue with this unwritten policy. We have no written policies on how to communicate with the press.”
In regard to Krasnow’s criticism of The News and the former chair’s recent reluctance to respond to press inquiries, Faulkner said, “The last thing I want to do is what we are doing. Now I am the chair, I want to turn this around. It is not the direction I want it to be in. The only time I would be reluctant to talk is if there was an issue that wasn’t solved yet or if I didn’t have the full board’s approval.”