by Jay Lawson
Councilwoman Kate Russell brought what she described as a learning-tool issue to the Town of Webb Board, involving a questionable Facebook post made by a member of the public.
Her discussion took place at the Board’s meeting on Monday, November 2.
The purpose of the presentation, Russell said, was to continue the topic of effective communication that permeated many of the questions and answers at last week’s candidate forum in the Town of Webb.
Russell said she does not participate in social media, but that someone alerted her to a Facebook post by Bill Brooker.
In it, Brooker stated that the cost of the 2014 audit of the local police department exceeded $400,000.
He also described a conversation he had with a retired state trooper at last weekend’s Meet & Greet for Supervisor candidate Stuart deCamp.
Brooker posted that he was informed of New York State Police examinations of municipal police departments. It is one of their duties, he was told, the cost is “next to nothing.”
After reading Brooker’s post, Councilwoman Russell gave her assessment of it. She said it dovetailed with the Candidate Night issue of “communication and providing information to the community.”
Particularly, it highlights the need to get facts straight.
“And I think that due diligence comes on everyone’s part [not only the Town Board],” she said.
“Yes, [Town Board members] are responsible for providing information to the community, but I think just as important is the community coming and getting facts—and correct facts—before they use them in this sense,” she said of Brooker’s post.
Barbara Green, who is competing with Brooker and others for a seat on the Board, gave her assessment of Brooker’s social media approach.
She said that, should Brooker be elected to the Board, the Board should set rules in place for him.
She said a new rule should allow Board members to only post comments on social media that are “pretty specific from the minutes of the meeting.” Board members’ Facebook posts should be screened in some way and “not allowed to just go.”
“Because that’s a nightmare,” Green said in reference to Brooker’s post.
Green admitted that controlling what a Councilperson says may be difficult but that, for the good of the Board, a way needs to be found.
She said that ill-advised utterances of a single Board member affect everybody.
Councilwoman Mary Brophy-Moore described a possible solution.
“The Board could set their own policy [to regulate Board members]… whether we do it now or wait until the new board comes in… Anyway, I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to have a policy in place,” she said.
Moore criticized Brooker not only as a potential Board member, but also as a candidate for the office.
“There’s campaigning and then there’s irresponsibility. And to me [his social media posting] is just irresponsible, plain and simple,” she said.
Moore then described her beliefs as to the proper functioning of a Board, as relating to Brooker.
“I can’t imagine [anyone on this board] doing something like that—even expressing an opinion—because it affects everything. [Statements to the public] need to be done as a group,” she said.
“So I think it is a good idea to have a policy,” she said.
Moore proposed that the policy be worked out at the Board’s Tuesday, November 10th meeting. She said they could come up with exact wording at that time.
“A little information can be a dangerous thing,” Barb Green said.
“Absolutely, and misunderstanding [too],” Moore said.
In commenting on the substance of the post, Councilman J.B. Herron differed with Brooker’s stated cost of $400,000.
“I think that figure is grossly inflated,” he said.
Councilwoman Moore said that’s why she ignored it.
“I didn’t want to respond to what [Brooker’s post] said, because it’s so out there and wrong,” she said.
When asked to describe the inaccuracies being alleged, Moore addressed Brooker’s post line by line.
She said Brooker’s calling the probe as “a study” was incorrect.
“It was an ‘internal audit,’” she said.
The Weekly Adirondack contacted Bill Brooker, who was not present at the meeting. He was asked for explanations pertaining to his Facebook post and comment on the Board’s critique of it.
First, Brooker stood by his use of the word “study.”
“My thesaurus says the word ‘study’ can be substituted for ‘audit.’ So I think I’m okay there,” Brooker said.
Councilwoman Moore also disputed Brooker’s source, saying State Police could not have performed the Town’s required work.
“[Internal audits are] not something that the state troopers offer as a service,” she said.
“I don’t even want to suppose or try to figure out what…[Brooker’s source] might have been talking about, but it wasn’t internal audits. The state troopers don’t go into police departments and do audits for them. So that’s ludicrous to me,” Moore said.
Brooker said that two troopers he talked to said the State Police are available to do investigations of municipal police departments. And given the way the town initially described the audit, an investigation seemed to be what was needed, he said.
“When this thing first started the Town described it, not as an audit, but rather as ‘an internal investigation and assessment’ of the police department. The Town never used the word ‘audit’. The word audit came later when the Town decided to change the name of what they were doing. So if there is confusion out there, I would blame the Town more than I would blame me and others in the public,” Brooker said.
Councilwoman Moore also took exception to the tone of Brooker’s post. She said there was an implication that the Town Board bumbled into an exercise without doing its homework.
“I mean [the post] makes us sound like fools, for one thing, [implying] that we wouldn’t have looked into [potentially free services],” she said. Councilwoman Moore pointed out that the advisor for the Town was a retired state trooper, so there was plenty of State Trooper input on its decisions.
Supervisor Riehle did confirm that “low- or no-cost audits” of municipal police departments were available [though not through the state police]. He said that he had, as Police Commissioner explored this option, but found the state agency involved to have insufficient resources. The Town’s audit had an immediacy about it, which didn’t fit the agency’s scheduling requirements. Simply put, it was not a viable option for the Town of Webb, according to Riehle.
All Board members agreed that Brooker’s post overstated the $400,000 audit cost, but they cited no actual cost.
Brooker admitted that the $400,000 amount came from community members and not official sources.
He said those community members were of the belief that the Town had low-balled its figure, leaving out things like the cost of hiring an interim police chief.
“I posted something that came directly from people on the street. It represents their perception and belief. And I disagree with Board members who describe this as a problem. I see it as evidence of the Board’s failure to communicate properly with the public. Facebook is an interactive medium, and out of 500 people who viewed that post, not one person disputed the figure. What does that tell you? Even when the figure came to the Board’s attention, not one of them contacted me with a correction. They didn’t provide an official amount, just attacks. I would suggest that, rather than shoot the messenger, maybe the Board should try to communicate better with the public. That goes back to what I was saying on Candidates Night—what everybody was saying. The Board needs to do a better job communicating,” he said.
Brooker was asked about the Board’s intention to create new policy that would require accuracy screenings of individual Board members’ social media comments.
“I would hope the Board values free speech more than that,” Brooker said. “I mean, where would you stop with that thinking? Do board members also need to get approval before sending text messages and emails? Do they have to walk with a buddy, so they don’t say something politically incorrect at the Post Office? Maybe the board can adopt this policy and call it ‘The Brooker Rule’… First of its kind in the United States.”