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La Plata's Media Policy Limits Access

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

If you're a reporter trying to ask the mayor of La Plata, a Town Council member, the town manager or any town official about a public decision or issue, there are a few extra steps to take:

1. Submit your questions, in writing, preferably via e-mail, to Judith Frazier, La Plata's town clerk.

2. Frazier will forward your questions to the appropriate town official. She also will notify the mayor and all council members of the media inquiry.

3. By the next business day, Frazier will send the official's prepared response via e-mail.

If your question is prompted by something discussed during a Town Council meeting, don't think about asking an official when the meeting ends. Instead, send an e-mail to Frazier, and she will "strive to send the responses the following business day."

Such is the new "media contact protocol" implemented Aug. 23 by La Plata. The brainchild of Town Manager Daniel Mears, the policy is designed to streamline media contact with town officials.

The media policy for La Plata, the Charles County seat, with about 8,500 residents, appears to be one of the most restrictive of any local government in the region.

Putting his policy to work, Mears did not respond to a voicemail or several e-mails from The Washington Post this week regarding the new procedure. Only after The Post e-mailed Frazier a list of questions did Mears respond: a prepared statement, included in an e-mail sent by Frazier.

"It is intended that the Town will be able improve its ability to respond by providing a clear point of contact," the statement said. "Regarding elected officials, as always they will communicate with the media as each deems appropriate. Establishing a point of contact provides them with flexibility to know someone can receive media inquiries on their behalf."

When The Post asked for a telephone interview, Mears demurred.

"I would be happy to direct your questions to the town manager, but he requires that they be in writing," Frazier said.

Mayor Gene Ambrogio did not follow the new protocol. When reached at home, Ambrogio agreed to an interview.

Ambrogio said Mears designed the policy to present his and council members' views "in a more refined way or filtered way."

"Sometimes people do say things, like off-the-cuff type remarks, that later on they regret that they said it," Ambrogio said. "It just gives us an opportunity to respond back through a centralized person.

"I don't think it was intentional to be purposefully shielding us from discussing anything with the media."

When asked what constituents would think of a policy that cushions the town's elected officials from direct questioning from news reporters, Ambrogio distanced himself from the policy.

"The mayor of La Plata, Gene Ambrogio, did not approach the other council members and say, 'I want to implement this policy,' " Ambrogio said. "The town manager, he's the one who came out with this idea."

Ambrogio said he wants to review the policy and might push to repeal it.

"Maybe it's not the perfect solution," Ambrogio said. "It's one of those things where you don't know if it's going to work until you try it. Sometimes things appear to be good in writing, but then they're not workable. It sounded good, let everything go through the town clerk, but in practice, it might not work. I don't know. It's hard to say."

Charles County Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said he was surprised by La Plata's new media protocol. Contrasting the town and county government practices, Cooper said the county's new press secretary and public information officer help reporters track down information, while commissioners regularly make themselves available for unfiltered interviews with reporters.

"It's the opposite of what we're trying to do," Cooper said. "That's why I'm surprised. I think a lot of criticism that we've received from the citizens was lack of communication, so we have tried very hard to open it up and be more open with the press and with the citizens."

Careful not to directly criticize the town's policy, Cooper said, "The citizens will judge whether it's right or wrong.

"We don't govern the Town of La Plata," Cooper said. "I want to be clear about that. They're incorporated, they have their own elections, and there's a difference with the direction we're taking with county government. We're trying to be more open with the public."

Foundation Adds Member

Ray Wernecke, a lifelong resident of Southern Maryland and the chief operating officer of Cherry Cove development company, has joined the College of Southern Maryland Foundation board.

The foundation provides support to the college and its students through scholarships, funds for technology and the arts, and health and wellness programs.

Wernecke, who has a bachelor's degree in physical education from Towson University, heads operations for Cherry Cove, a lodging and real estate development company based in Lexington Park. Before joining Cherry Cove, he worked for nearly 20 years in various customer service-related positions for the Navy.

"I've always appreciated the fact that CSM really is the college of Southern Maryland, in that so many people have benefited from the services the college provides, whether it is corporate training, job-skill development or earning a degree," Wernecke said in a statement.

Wernecke of Leonardtown said that he would like to help the college develop an educational program for careers in the hospitality industry.

Water, Sewer Meeting

Charles County commissioners will have a public hearing at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Commissioners' Meeting Room of the Charles County Government Building in La Plata to consider proposed amendments to the county's Comprehensive Water and Sewer Plan.

The 10-year plan describes how and where the county will provide public water and sewer service. The proposed amendments are available for review in the Department of Planning and Growth Management at the County Government Building.

For a detailed listing of the proposal, contact Jason Groth at 301-396-5814 or grothj@charlescounty.org, or 800-735-2258 (TDD).

Calvert Zoning Forums

The Calvert County Department of Planning and Zoning has scheduled public forums from 7 to 9 p.m., with a question-answer session. They are:

? District 3 (northern Calvert): Monday, Mt. Hope Community Center, Pushaw Station Road (off of Route 2), Owings.

? District 1 (southern Calvert): Wednesday, Mill Creek Middle School, 12200 Margaret Taylor Rd., Lusby.

? District 2 (central Calvert): next Thursday, Courthouse Square, Duke and Main streets, Prince Frederick.

Copies of the plan are available at the planning department, 150 Main St., Prince Frederick, and http://www.co.cal.md.us/residents/building/planning/watersewerforums.asp.

Projects Win Funding

A Southern Maryland project was among six in the state to receive funds from the National Park Service for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network Program, announced Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrats.

The six Maryland recipients will receive almost $164,000 in federal grants. The Gateways Network is a partnership system of parks, refuges, museums, historic sites and water trails in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

In Southern Maryland, the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard was awarded $30,000 for "Reading the Signs: Changes to the Chesapeake Bay Since the Exploration by Capt. John Smith."

The project combines research and educational programming to document and interpret the changes to the bay's watershed since the 17th century, providing students with information on bay stewardship.

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