Parkston officials: Newspaper can talk with city stafferPARKSTON — Gag order? What gag order?
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
PARKSTON — Gag order? What gag order?
That was the official response of the Parkston mayor and City Council when discussing an accusation Tuesday by the publisher and editor of the town's newspaper that the public had been denied information on a city issue and the paper had been denied access to a key city employee.
The city officials said no such order existed but did ask the newspaper to limit its requests for information from Finance Officer Brenda Huether.
"If you're gonna interview her for a story, she needs to know that," Mayor Dave Hoffman said. "It's no different than anybody on this council. Just a casual conversation doesn't always work."
The publisher and editor of The Parkston Advance addressed the council Tuesday night to request the removal of what it termed a "gag order" on Huether.
"If we don't make this request for ourselves, it's for the people of Parkston," Publisher Scott Ehler told the council. "We are there for everyone who cannot be."
According to The Advance, Hoffman placed a gag order on Huether in May after Editor Wendy Royston was accused of harassing her regarding the release of an annexation study, which the paper received prior to the meeting.
On May 10, the Parkston City Council reviewed the study. Resident Rob Heiser requested a copy, but was denied one with the explanation that the council would like to have City Attorney Chris Braley review it before releasing it to the public.
After Royston asked Huether questions about the situation and sent e-mails for clarification, Hoffman said she was harassing Huether, according to Royston.
Tuesday night, the mayor said there was never an effort to restrict access to public information.
"I think the gag order came from the newspaper," he said.
Hoffman said there were five requests in one day for Huether's time after the May 10 meeting.
"I'm not sure that was really necessary," Hoffman said. "One request and you could have got it. I basically said you were harassing the employee."
Hoffman said Huether's time is precious and shouldn't be wasted. Royston said she only called Huether once on the day in question after the May 10 meeting and didn't send any e-mails.
"I think this whole thing is blown way out of proportion," Hoffman said. "What we say in the mic and what was say in the minutes is not being portrayed in the paper. You are dramatizing it."
A few residents spoke in favor of how the council handled the situation.
Teresa Mann said she was happy the council dealt with the study "on top of the table rather than under the table." Any time a public entity has to spend money, they have to approve it first, she said.
Former councilman Greg Reiser spoke to viewing the situation from both sides. He was going to ask for the study at the same meeting Heiser did. However, he noted he once sat on a council and said he can see why they did what they did.
"I can very much appreciate that Dave brought it forth to the rest of the guys and asked permission to get it overviewed," Reiser said. "He brought it forth here, did the right thing. Granted, it's probably not by law, because we're all privy to it — but bring it to an attorney, find out the correct language, get it done right before everyone makes a big issue of it."
Hoffman and others on the council agreed they weren't always sure when Royston was interviewing them. Council members Tim Henke and Rob Bertram aired complaints about being misquoted by Royston, saying she misinterpreted what they said regarding the issue.
The 17-minute public forum ended with Royston asking the council if the paper is allowed to speak with Huether.
Hoffman said yes.
Royston also asked if the paper needs permission from the full council to speak with Huether, as she said was suggested in late May by Hoffman.
He said the paper only has to ask Huether whether she has time to talk.
"Yes, she's accessible, but I don't think it needs to be excessive," Hoffman said.