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Fayette officials approve update to media policy

| Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

By a 2-1 vote, Fayette County commissioners on Tuesday updated a policy governing how department heads interact with the media and named their chief clerk to the position of public relations officer.

Commissioners Al Ambrosini and Vince Zapotosky voted in favor of the changes, with Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink dissenting.

Under the updated directive, department heads must receive approval from commissioners before releasing any information that is not directly related to their department's daily operations.

Requests for information that are outside a department head's authority are to be forwarded to Chief Clerk Amy Revak in her role as public relations officer. Revak is then to “inform the commissioners of the request and coordinate a response,” according to the update.

In addition, Revak will be responsible for releasing information to the media during a crisis.

Zapotosky said the update will ensure the commissioners' office is the “originating point of contact” between the county and reporters, and that any information released represents “the position of the county.”

“It keeps the commissioners on the same page as department heads,” Zapotosky said. “None of us will wake up in the morning and see an article where our opinion is absolutely irrelevant.”

Ambrosini said the intent is to ensure that residents are aware of the county's “official stance” on issues.

“It's time for change,” Ambrosini said. “It's time to institute a policy whereby, when the county has a position on something, the general public knows what it is.”

Zimmerlink objected to the change, noting residents have not complained in the past of having trouble keeping commissioners' comments separate from those of department heads.

“The public can read an article and know when a comment is made by a commissioner or someone else,” Zimmerlink said.

A couple who attended the meeting, Ralph and Geraldine Mazza of Franklin Township, said the change appears to be aimed at controlling information that is released publicly and to infringe on department heads' First Amendment rights.

Ralph Mazza accused the two commissioners of putting into place “a propaganda machine that Joseph Goebbels would be proud of.”

Under Adolf Hitler, Goebbels was Nazi Germany's propaganda minister from 1933 to 1945.

Zapotosky said the directive is not intended to infringe on employees' right to free speech, noting that when they are working for the county, “the onus is to portray the county's position, not their position.”

In an unrelated matter, Leonard Maharowski, a private investigator hired by the Fayette County Housing Authority, gave commissioners an update on his investigation into the May 30 discovery of internal housing authority documents at a South Union restaurant.

Maharowski gave a report similar to one he delivered to the authority on Aug. 9. He said witnesses advised him that housing authority board member Beverly Beal, Zimmerlink and former authority employee Sonya Over were looking over documents while seated at a table in the restaurant.

Maharowski said he is still investigating and asked Zimmerlink for a private meeting. She declined and directed him to contact her attorney, noting that his public request to speak to her is the first time he has attempted to do so during his investigation.

Zimmerlink repeated earlier assertions there were no documents spread on the table while she was there, decried insinuations of wrongdoing and said the investigation is politically motivated.

“To imply there was criminal activity because I went to lunch with two people there, it's the dark side of the political machine coming out in Fayette County,” Zimmerlink said.

Zimmerlink said she has learned from state police that they are no longer investigating the incident. Thomas Broadwater, the trooper she identified as the officer in charge of the investigation, was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Several audience members objected to Maharowski addressing the board before he has formally closed his investigation, prompting Zapotosky to question whether they want full disclosure of county activities.

“You just got done talking about Joseph Goebbels,” Zapotosky said. “You can't have it both ways. Either full disclosure, or not. No Joseph Goebbels. No Herman Goering. Full disclosure.”

Goering, who was commander-in-chief of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe, or air force, was convicted after World War II of war crimes and sentenced to death, but he committed suicide hours before his scheduled execution by taking cyanide.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com

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