Ferrell, Dwelle disagree on origins of gag order

PERKINS TWP. Trustees Jeff Ferrell and Bill Dwelle don't see eye-to-eye on why they agreed Tuesday on a new policy that prohi
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

 

PERKINS TWP.

Trustees Jeff Ferrell and Bill Dwelle don't see eye-to-eye on why they agreed Tuesday on a new policy that prohibits employees from commenting on Perkins Township issues without permission.

"When I first started running for the board of trustees last fall, I said that the chain of command was broken and was not being enforced by the trustees," Ferrell said. "Information being disseminated publicly about the township should come from the trustees so we know it's correct."

But Dwelle said the new "spokesperson policy" was prompted by Perkins police Chief Tim McClung because he spoke to a citizens group about the joint dispatch proposal involving the Perkins and Sandusky police departments.

"People in the police department are well aware of what my feelings and Mr. Ferrell's feelings are on those issues," Dwelle said. "Yet they continue to go out and have meetings and promote joint dispatch."

Ferrell, however, disagrees.

"This didn't have anything to do with joint dispatch," Ferrell said.

Jeff Ferrell's brother, county commissioner Tom Ferrell is pushing for a county-controlled, centralized dispatch center that would be operated by the sheriff. County commissioners authorized spending more than $90,000 on a regional dispatch study by an out-of-state firm. The results should be available in August.

The joint dispatch-headquarters study, which was conducted at no cost, already has been completed. An eight-person citizens' committee appointed by trustees and the Sandusky City Commission reviewed the city-township proposal for more than six months and recommended late last year that the two governments move forward with it.

A joint facility and dispatch operation would offer an immediate savings of about $500,000 in equipment costs and about $140,000 in reduced manpower needs annually, the committee said.

Jeff Ferrell has a potential conflict of interest in discussing or voting on any matters dealing with dispatch because he is a a firefighter and supervisor with the Sandusky Fire Department. According to a previous advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission, an elected official should refrain from voting on any matters that would have a direct impact on his or her employer.

It's not clear whether that opinion applies to Ferrell or if he has asked for an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission specific to his situation.

Although Ferrell and Dwelle do not agree on why they approved the policy, they do agree there should be no problem enforcing it.

But a constitutional lawyer said the wording of it is too broad and violates the First Amendment. The policy states "no employee of Perkins Township is authorized to provide any public comment on official township policies and operations or other issues which may affect Perkins Township" without written authorization from Dwelle or Ferrell, referring to trustee chairman or vice-chairman posts.

Attorney David Marburger, who specializes in constitutional law, said the new policy does not pass the smell test.

"I have absolutely no respect for anybody who would draft or adopt a policy like this," he said.

Trustee Tim Coleman did not attend Tuesday's meeting where the already typed policy was first introduced and then quickly adopted by Jeff Ferrell and Dwelle.

Fiscal Officer Pam Kellam also was not in attendance and said she was not informed that a meeting was scheduled. Diane Schaefer, who was elected fiscal officer in November but won't take office until April, did attend. She was previously hired by trustees to serve as an assistant fiscal officer until she takes office.

Ferrell said he, Dwelle and Schaefer recently attended a trustee convention in Columbus that included a seminar about township policies where the issue of a spokesperson policy was addressed.

Ferrell said he wrote out the new policy and gave it to John Coppeler, the township's attorney, to review. Ferrell said Coppeler made a few changes to the text.

Coppeler declined to comment on the issue last week.

Coleman said he also saw a draft of the policy before it was approved.

"A lot of organizations and businesses have this kind of policy, designating a spokesman," Coleman said. "It makes it easier to get one message out to the public."

No confusion

Ferrell and Dwelle said McClung, fire Chief Rick Myosky and highway superintendent Daryel Sternberg can still discuss their day-to-day operations with the public or the media even though the new policy specifically prohibits any unauthorized public comments.

Ferrell said he does not think the language of the policy contradicts how it will actually be enforced.

"I think I made it clear to the department heads that they can still talk about their operations," Ferrell said. "I hope that they would go back and relay that to the other employees."

He said the policy can be amended,

"If people think it's a vague policy, I'm happy to revisit that."

All three trustees said they see no reason to be concerned the policy infringes on free speech.

"I don't see any problems with this policy," Dwelle said. "It's just the same thing with corporations, you can't have everybody going out and speaking for a company or a government."

Dwelle and Ferrell both said they were unaware McClung was invited to speak to the 20/20 group, which was formed last year to encourage potential candidates to run for local offices. The group switched its focus to issues important to the county's future after the Jan. 4 deadline to file candidacies. The 20/20 name refers to what actions should be taken now to ensure a prosperous future by the year 2020.

The group invited both McClung and Sandusky police Chief Kim Nuesse to discuss the relative benefits and drawbacks of joint dispatch and joint police headquarters for the two departments and answer questions about the issue.

Ferrell said it would have been nice for at least one of the trustees to attend the meeting as well.

In the future, Ferrell said McClung should ask the trustees about whether he could speak at such a public meeting, and tell them what he's planning to say.

"We want to be informed of what our department heads are doing and what they're saying," Ferrell said. "We want to make sure the information they're giving out is correct. End of story."

But Dwelle said he did not think it would be appropriate for McClung to speak about joint dispatch anymore.

"He has presented his feelings over and over again," Dwelle said. "If someone asks the chief about joint dispatch, I would expect him to say that it's in the hands of the trustees and they should be the only ones commenting on it."

It's not clear whether McClung has permission to give that response, or whether trustees have provided that response in writing, as required by the new policy.

McClung, who asked for clarification of the policy when it was being enacted by Ferrell and Dwelle, said he could not comment on either joint dispatch or the new spokesperson policy.