Mayor Ann Thane issued a memo on October 23,2014 which rescinds a previous executive order issued back in August that gave direction to city staff in regards to their interactions with Common Council members. Thane says the new order addresses concerns from the NY Civil Liberties union that the original order infringed on city employees’ first amendment rights. However, members of Common Council passed a resolution at yesterday’s council meeting asking the mayor to rescind the new order.
Thane claimed during discussions with the council back in August that she had received complaints from several different departments about the amount of time being expended on extended conversations with council members. The original executive order directed city employees to get approval from the mayor before meeting with common council members, that the mayor be informed of any requests for information from council members, and that any request for information requiring more than 15 minutes of work to produce would require the mayor’s approval.
The city received a letter from the NYCLU in September which asked the mayor to rescind the order because it “violates the First Amendment rights of public employees when they speak as private citizens to make statements about non-confidential matters of public concern.” The letter went on to say “specifically, our concerns rest on the notification and pre-clearance requirements that may have a broad inhibiting effect on all City employees – chilling potential speech before it happens, even for those who might ultimately receive permission to speak.”
The revised order states that “employees are to respond to reasonable information requests from Council Members and provide the requested information,” with the stipulation that any requests that are “complex or burdensome” or that would take more than 15 minutes to prepare should be brought to the attention of the employee’s department head before honoring the request. The memo defines an unreasonable request as one in which “preparation of the response will negatively impact other work.”
The order also states that if asked by a council member to complete a certain task, “it is appropriate to comply with such reasonable requests that are a part of the employee’s job description,” but asserts that the council members do not direct staff members and that staff are not obligated to comply to any given request.
The revised order reiterates the previous order’s direction that any meeting involving discussion of employee performance or department policy or procedure must be scheduled through the mayor’s office.
Finally, the order clarifies that “this executive order does not apply to any city employee in his or her non-official capacity when he or she wants to speak, associate, or meet with anyone as a private citizen regarding non-confidential matters or public interest.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler said, “I’d like to recommend that you actually rescind the new [order] that you’ve put out. We don’t need this, the employees don’t need this, and we need to move ahead as best as we possibly can. But we don’t need a gag order hanging over us and that’s essentially what this is in one form or another. It needs to be done away with.”
Thane responded by saying “This is not a gag order…it is executive policy. It is to create efficiency and actually open doors of communication. And the concerns that were brought up by the NY Civil Liberties Union have been addressed…and it’s really not something that you can rescind by resolution because it’s executive policy.”
Corporation Counsel Gerald DeCusatis noted that the resolution was only a request for the mayor to rescind the resolution, not a rescindment in itself. The resolution was passed by all four council members present. Alderwoman Valerie Beekman was absent.
Today, NYCLU Attorney Lisa Laplace, who authored the letter to the city, said that she was glad that the city was “quick to partner with us to take on some of our comments.” Laplace said she has reviewed the new executive order and said the revisions were a step in the right direction in protecting employees’ first amendment rights, but that she felt “more could have been done.” She said that some of the policies needed to be “more fleshed out” in terms of protecting first amendment rights. Laplace said that NYCLU does not offer any guidelines or specific suggestions as to how municipal policies should be written.