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Policy bars Delmont staff from talking about borough matters

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Delmont Council unanimously approved a new policy that threatens termination for employees who discuss borough business, and Pittsburgh-area civil rights officials say its language may infringe on employees' free-speech rights as private citizens.

Following a Feb. 10 executive session, council voted to enact the policy, which states that employees aren't permitted to discuss “department policies, practices, regulations or comment about daily operations.”

Delmont Councilman Randy Cupps — who voted in favor of it — said he was “as shocked as anyone” when Councilwoman Becky Matesevac introduced the policy.

The policy directs employees not to give personal opinions on “any subject matter related to borough business.”

Reached for comment, Matesevac — who serves on the borough personnel committee — summarized the policy and asked that any questions be directed to her after council's next meeting, set for March 10 at 7 p.m. in the borough building.

Asked to clarify the policy's particulars and explain what prompted it, borough Solicitor Dan Hewitt declined.

“No offense — but no comment,” Hewitt said.

Council President Jim Bortz said Hewitt's response is emblematic of the policy's intent.

“I guess he wanted to defer to council,” he said.

Bortz characterized the policy as standard operating procedure and something many towns employ.

“This is really in defense of the employees,” Bortz said. “It really takes them out of the middle of things. We don't want them trying to answer questions on matters they might not be well-versed on.”

Bortz said the borough's three nonunion employees frequently are asked questions by residents “and maybe they feel obliged to answer, and it's misunderstood or taken out of context, and this keeps that from happening.”

After reviewing the policy, Pittsburgh American Civil Rights staff attorney Sara Rose said it could compromise employees' First-Amendment right to free speech.

“This appears to apply to any information about borough business, giving personal opinions on subject matter... that covers a lot of stuff,” Rose said. “If you're a borough employee and you don't like the way trash is collected, can you be disciplined for saying something about it? I think it's possible, based on my reading of how this is worded.”

As an example, Rose cited Pickering v. Board of Education, a 1968 case in which the Supreme Court established a free-speech precedent with regard to the workplace. In that case, a public-school teacher was fired after writing a letter to her local newspaper about school-board budget cuts.

“That was found to be quintessential protected speech, according to the court,” Rose said. “(Delmont's) policy is written so broadly that it potentially covers protected free speech.”

The policy applies to two public-works employees and the borough secretary.

Delmont police are unionized and not covered under the policy, which makes plain that borough business is not to be discussed outside of public meetings and borough offices.

“The integrity of Delmont Borough shall be held in the highest regard at all times,” it reads. “Disseminating information or gossiping about borough business will result in disciplinary action.”

The policy does not spell out the legal parameters of what defines “disseminating information.”

Patrick Varine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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