On Monday, April 8, members of the Wildwood City Council debated the issue of whose responsibility it was to speak for the city.
While conceding that the First Amendment rights of each council member and city staff member should be protected, council member Kevin Dillard [Ward 3] suggested a policy for designating a spokesperson should be considered. Dillard offered a motion before the council to have the Administration and Public Works Committee “consider a policy regarding the appropriate time and mechanism for appointing a spokesperson for the city on public relations matters.”
“In light of recent events, I realized we don’t have any policy that sets forth when and who should be speaking on behalf of the city,” Dillard explained after the meeting.
Some of his fellow council members expressed concern that the motion was an attempt to limit their ability to speak in an official capacity to their constituents.
“My concern with this is I think we’re kinda reinventing the wheel,” Steve Taylor [Ward 4] council member said. “One of the problems when you add layer upon layer on this is you lack the ability to respond quickly.”
Council member Greg Stine [Ward 7] said he believed the topic had been brought to Administration and Public Works in the past.
“I made a pretty strong argument [then] that we not adopt a policy such as this,” Stine said. “And the reason is that it’s unconstitutional. It infringes on every elected official’s First Amendment right.”
“I think in this case common sense needs to prevail.”
After a short debate, the council voted down the motion meaning the issue will not be given further consideration at this time.
In an interview after the meeting, Dillard expanded on his rationale and believed his motion was misunderstood by some members of the city council.
“I’m not saying that council members, or employees if they want to, can’t speak on behalf of themselves,” Dillard said. “What I’m concerned about is we have a PR [public relations] issue, which could be anything the community thinks is bad … someone could hypothetically speak on behalf of the city and, unwittingly, what they say might become the official position of the city, at least in the minds of the public.”
Dillard points out that without proper vetting such statement could put the city in a disadvantageous legal position.
“Somebody could potentially put us in legal peril,” Dillard said. “Or even just make us look bad.”
In a subsequent interview, Mayor Jim Bowlin said that while he often spoke on behalf of the city, he did not object to sharing that responsibility with other elected officials.
“Our code says the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city,” Bowlin said. “However, I’m a proponent of free speech for all and I don’t have any problem with any council member speaking to the media. I think generally the reader or the viewer can determine who is speaking for the city.”
Bowlin said that he could not recall a time during his tenure when the topic of a public information officer or other designated city spokesperson has come up. He emphasized that he is a firm believer in elected officials speaking directly to their constituents.
For his part, Dillard does not have the same faith in the mayor that Bowlin reports to have with the council.
“I don’t trust him [Bowlin] to have the judgment to be the spokesperson for the city without substantial oversight,” Dillard said. “That was a major influencing factor on me bringing the issue up for discussion.”
Dillard also indicated he may bring the issue back before a new city council. He said he’s already had some conversations with incoming council members who gave Dillard the impression they could support the measure. Newly elected council members will be sworn in at the next city council meeting on April 22.