Muni Matters: Fitchburg Policy Highlights Complexity of Muni Comms

Communities Weigh How to Share Info with Electeds, Public

Communities Weigh How to Share Info with Electeds, Public

When Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale announced in late January that all future communications between city councilors and city department heads would need to go through his office, social media began to light up.

A Facebook post by At-Large City Councilor Sam Squailia drew more than 200 comments, many of them criticizing the policy. On the same day, At-Large Councilor Marcus DiNatale, who is the mayor’s son, published his own post saying the change would not affect his ability to serve constituents and chiding those “throwing tantrums and fueling rampant speculation as to motives online.”

The council went on to discuss the new policy for more than an hour in early February, ultimately agreeing to wait and see how the process plays out. But despite the local outcry, routing inquiries through the chief executive’s office appears to be a relatively common chain of communication in other cities and towns across the state.

In the past, Fitchburg had taken what Mayor DiNatale called a “laissez-faire” approach to interactions between councilors and city departments. His Jan. 27 letter to the council announced all future questions and concerns from councilors, the press and constituents would need to be submitted to his office, in accordance with section 19 of the city’s charter.

The original letter stated that all responses from department leaders must be approved by the mayor. A revised version of the letter, which references only city council members and does not mention journalists or the public, was posted to the mayor’s Facebook page on Jan. 28.

“Since issuing this letter, there has been a tremendous overreaction,” DiNatale, a former state representative, told councilors at a Feb. 1 meeting. “You may hear terms for example that I’m killing democracy or preventing the City Council to operate as legislators. Need I say this is absolutely untrue? Who has ever been denied information from my office?”

Several councilors said during the meeting that they had no issue with the policy and had already been copying the mayor’s office on written communications with departments. Others had logistical questions, such as whether councilors could submit requests by phone and whether the policy would slow down the process of getting questions answered. A majority of councilors said they are willing to see how the system works and make adjustments as needed.

“A deep concern is that if councilors, the press and constituents do not have access to reliable, verifiable information from the departments that run our city, that duty as a check and balance is not being fulfilled,” Squailia said at the meeting. “I believe in transparency and accessibility in government. I also believe in reducing red tape, not creating more layers of it.”

In response to an interview request, DiNatale said in an emailed statement that the policy is being enforced not to streamline operations, but to ensure councilors’ efforts aren’t bleeding into areas for which the executive branch of city government, rather than the legislative branch, is responsible. He said this will help avoid confusion and “mistakes in transmittal of information.”

“Before reestablishing the policy, City Councilors had been calling, texting and emailing to direct Department Heads, and were even present during a site visit to discuss a contract,” DiNatale wrote. “This was not only disruptive for department heads and staff, but at times a misuse of city resources and raised ethical concerns.”

Council President Anthony Zarrella said he is sympathetic to the issues the mayor raised. His main concerns involve logistical issues, such as scheduling procedural meetings with department heads and facilitating long-term projects that require frequent communication between departments and councilors.

He also wonders about the potential burden on the mayor’s administrative assistant, now responsible for sending regular emails to the entire council aggregating answers to their most recent questions.

Zarrella told the News Service he and other councilors plan to meet with the mayor’s office periodically to work out any kinks in the chain of communication going forward. Though there is still disagreement, he said he’s confident DiNatale is working in good faith and that any issues that arise will be resolved.

“I don’t agree with the specifics of the policy; it’s not how I would have done it, but I do understand the reasons behind it,” Zarrella said. “And I respect the mayor’s decision to do it.”

Councilor DiNatale noted during the meeting that other nearby cities, such as Gardner and Leominster, have similar procedures around councilor requests.

The approach is not limited to communities with a city council form of government. Sean Dugan, public information officer in Lexington, said the town routes most inquiries from the select board — and the public — through the town manager’s office first. That’s partly because residents and officials may not know who the best person is to address a particular issue.

“Because it becomes difficult when you have elected officials reaching out directly to staff, and that might be counter to what the town manager might be asking them to do,” Dugan said. “So it’s just a lot cleaner if they go through the town manager to figure out the right process.”

From Dugan’s perspective, it appears that cities and towns are beginning to spend more time than ever thinking about communication, both internally and with the broader community. His own position in Lexington was created in 2019 after a town-wide survey showed residents wanted better communication from local government.

As digital media becomes more ubiquitous, Dugan said cities and towns have had to adopt a blended approach to communications, using not only mailings, newspaper announcements and physical signs to get the word out about important matters, but also social media, websites and email newsletters. This has made the job of reaching residents more complex than it once was.

In Gloucester, new Mayor Greg Verga wants to make consistent communication a priority. His administration is working on developing formal policies for social media and information-sharing, as well as hiring a communications and constituent services director. When it comes to internal back-and-forth, Verga knows councilors may have existing relationships with department heads, but asks that they refrain from giving direct instructions to city staff.

“What we are asking is that, if they have a question for a department that can be answered with a yes or no or something off the top of the head, go ahead and go direct,” Verga said. “But if it’s something that’s going to require research, or take them away from something they might be working on, come through the mayor’s office, so it’s official.”

Verga is taking a similar approach with Gloucester’s social media and has chosen to share information primarily through the city’s official page rather than the mayor-specific page his predecessor created. Verga also directs any inquiries that come in via Facebook to his official email address so they will be documented in the public record.

More and more cities and towns are hiring dedicated staff to help develop municipal communications strategies, according to Dugan. He said an informal group he started in 2015 for local communication professionals has grown from about 10 members when it started to more than 40 today.

“I’d really advocate that [communities] create the position if they don’t already have it, because it really is directly connected to the success of certain projects and initiatives,” Dugan said. “Because if you’re doing the work, but you’re not getting the word out to the audience that you’re intending to get out to, then it has a direct impact on the quality of that work.”

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