Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration received criticism from some council members on Friday afternoon for imposing a new social media use policy barring employees from using websites like Facebook and Twitter to share pictures or documents or discussing matters that relate to their government jobs.
The seven-point policy was promulgated by personnel director Abby Levenson to all employees on Wednesday. Councilman Michael Jackson criticized the policy as “unfair” and thought it will chill the free speech of 2,000 city workers.
“Are we stepping on someone’s First Amendment rights?” asked Jackson, who represents the 1st Ward, to business administrator Nellie Pou.
Pou said the policy was vetted before it went into effect. She also claimed the policy had always existed and the communication sent out to all employees two days ago was simply a reiteration of it.
Council president William McKoy said the policy appears to be new. “This isn’t reiterating, but establishing,” he said. The policy itself suggests it is new – the last line reads: “This policy shall take effect immediately.”
Pou said such a policy existed for a while in the Paterson Fire Department. She said the administration wanted to be “consistent” by imposing it on all municipal employees.
The council president thought the policy should have been shared with council members before it was imposed on all employees. He found it “bothersome” that council members only learned of it when an email went out to all employees and themselves.
“I was embarrassed and surprised,” said McKoy. He also noted the policy lacks a signature. Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman, asked the business administrator whether she saw such a policy at the city in her four decades of employment.
The business administrator replied she does not use social media and that social networking sites did not exist decades ago.
“A lot of places have these policies,” said Maritza Davila, councilwoman at-large. She said her employer, the Passaic County Community College, has such a policy. She works as an admissions administrator at the college.
Davila said the timing of promulgating the policy was wrong. “Individuals feel they are being targeted,” she said.
Political activist Ernest Rucker said the policy is taking aim at community improvement director David Gilmore.
Gilmore runs a widely popular Facebook page called “Let’s Save Paterson.” He often takes pictures, in his free time, mostly during the weekend, and shares them on Facebook to highlight the government’s enforcement shortcomings.
Rucker said the administration is trying to muzzle Gilmore.
Gilmore has been involved in a dispute with the administration. He is seeking out of title pay for the months he filled in as director of the Community Improvement Division before being permanently appointed as director.
Gilmore is also no longer handling the day to day functions of the division. He has been working out of the Economic Development Department. His task there is to oversee the mayor’s abandoned properties initiatives and other tasks, according to officials.
When seeking information about Gilmore’s status, the mayor’s office referred the matter to economic development director Ruben Gomez.
Gomez said Gilmore’s title remains community improvement director. When asked further questions as to why he is no longer handling the daily operations of Community Improvement Division, he said he could not publicly discuss personnel matters.
Gomez said Penni Forestieri, who works at the Paterson Restoration Corporation and also as an Urban Enterprise Zone administrator at the city, is handling daily operations at the Community Improvement Division.
Gilmore had to be rushed to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center earlier in the year while he was at a City Council meeting. He had to be taken to the hospital a second time when he suffered seizure while inside a city building. Gilmore confirmed both incidents and said in the second incident he was not at work,
The administration is looking out for Gilmore’s health, say Torres administration officials, by keeping him out of the intense environment at the Community Improvement Division. Gilmore and his union have said doctors, including the city’s, have cleared him to return to work.
When asked whether he felt the policy targeted him, Gilmore responded: “I’m fearful of commenting. If in fact it’s targeting me then I should think twice. I’d prefer to remain safe by not commenting.”
Jackson said the policy raises “eyebrows” and it opens the door for lawsuits.
Torres’ new policy may not just muzzle his detractors, but also his supporters. Part of the policy states: “At no time shall any employee use the city of Paterson name and/or logo to endorse or promote any opinion, product, cause, or political candidate.”
For example, in one case earlier this year, lieutenant Sharon Easton, clad in her police uniform with a gun on her waist, urged the council not to take a no confidence vote that sought the indicted mayor’s resignation. Torres is accused of theft and other corruption charges. He has pleaded not guilty and has vowed to fight to clear his name.
Easton was rebuked by the council president.
Torres has been accused of muzzling city employees’ political speech in the past. Most famously by former detective Jeffrey Heffernan in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Torres was accused of retaliating against Heffernan after the mayor’s bodyguard saw the detective pick up a lawn sign for his sick mother from a mayoral candidate’s headquarter who was challenging the incumbent mayor in 2006.
The lawsuit cost taxpayers approximately $2.2 million in legal fees and settlement money.
This report was updated on June 30th, 2017 at 5:33 p.m.