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EDITORIAL: County shouldn't gag employees from talking to media

Those who support a free flow of information from their local government should be very concerned about an item on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners agenda for Tuesday, April 17.

It's listed under the 10 a.m. items presented by County Coordinator Heather Schlangen as a "personnel policy update." Here it is, verbatim:

"Employees must refrain from giving out information or conducting interviews with the media about Douglas County or their work at Douglas County unless given written authorization to do so by their Department Head. Therefore, if you receive inquiries from the media, such as for newspapers, magazines, radio or television, refer the inquirer to your Department Head or the County Coordinator. Management will issue a data request form, collect the data request, review the request, and respond, as needed."

Prior written authorization? Data request forms? Referring to management?

What, exactly, is the county so worried about? That a county employee would have the audacity to speak their mind? That without this policy, "management" would be unable to control how every employee thinks and expresses themselves?

This heavy-handed policy is, at best, a bureaucratic attempt to try to control information, and at worst, a way to stop their employees from telling the truth and to keep the public from knowing about it.

This is a policy that should have never seen the light of day. The policy's process of simply allowing an employee to speak to the media is so tedious — involving requests, referrals, forms, data collection and review — that it should have raised enough red flags to kill the idea as soon as it was typed.

The policy harkens back to 2006 when another Douglas County coordinator threatened to put all county employees under a gag order from talking to the newspaper unless the newspaper allowed the coordinator to read the story first. Fortunately, the public outrage was so high that the threat was quickly withdrawn.

This policy should see the same quick end. The county board should listen to the public, the people who elected them — not their coordinator — and disavow it.

Public trust in their government leaders is not running very high right now. When local government leaders try to hide the truth or muzzle the media, it only adds to their distrust.

Interestingly, at the last county board meeting when county social workers expressed frustration over labor negotiations, their comments were not even included as part of the county's official minutes of the meeting.

It's as if their complaints never happened.

This latest attempt to stop county employees from speaking to the media falls along the same lines. The county coordinator seems to believe that only she or the department heads should control all information coming from the county — to have it pre-authorized, collected, reviewed and sanitized. Otherwise, the information will never see the light of day, as if it never happened.

We encourage the public to call their commissioner and tell them this is not the kind of county they want to see. County employees should be able to talk to the media whenever they choose without the lurking presence of a department head, a coordinator and a misguided policy.

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