Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Follow Up on Deer at Zoo – Part 1 of 3

By Terry E. Cohen, Council Member

Last night at the city council meeting, I raised the status of the Salisbury Zoo’s perruque-headed deer. I was elected to be responsive to the concerns of citizens, to be a representative, and would like to take this opportunity to share communications from my involvement.

While my political critics may call this airing dirty laundry, I think in light of last night’s 3-to-2 council decision to further block the free flow of information to representatives and to the citizens directly, this is a valuable exchange for the public to view. You can judge for yourself if my communications to staff were disrespectful, as the mayor has often accused me. You can ask yourself why the mayor seemed more concerned about protocol and control than the welfare of the animal.

When the deer was first brought to my attention last year by a number of concerned citizens, I sent an email to then-Interim Zoo Director Gary Muir on July 5, 2007. I come from a long political and legislative background where open communication is used to solve problems, so it was natural for me to send this request. The text of that email was:

Mr. Muir,

First, thank you for consenting to serve as interim zoo director following Mr. Rapp's departure. That willingness to serve is very appreciated, and I'm sure your long experience with the Salisbury Zoo will be beneficial in the position.

I'd like to ask for your help regarding the perruque-headed deer at the zoo. Some residents have expressed concern over its well-being, so this weekend I did some research and actually communicated about the condition with an Australian veterinarian who specializes in deer.

Would you have a few minutes to discuss this with me in the next couple of days? It would be most appreciated as I would like to support efforts to ensure the buck's well-being and comfort, as well as share mutually beneficial information.

You may reach me via this email, or by calling 410-845-0296. Thank you very much.

Terry E. Cohen

Terry E. Cohen, Member
Salisbury City Council

The first response I received on the matter was July 9, 2007, from Mayor Barrie Tilghman. Among her comments was a false charge that I violated the charter. (Requesting a conversation with someone to share information is hardly “administering staff.” I’ll reserve this discussion for a later time.) The text of her email follows:

Terry: I have done everything I can to communicate the protocol as it relates to direct communication with City staff by Council members. A simple question is one thing but requesting a meeting to discuss specific issues at the Zoo without any communication with the City Administrator, the mayor or even the Department Director of Public Works is in clear violation of the City Charter's provision that the Mayor is the chief elected official and administers the day-to-day operation of the City. Whether I am mayor or not is not at issue. The mayor cannot vote on legislation and the City Council cannot direct and meet with staff on operational issues. This is confusing to staff and cannot continue. I
If you would like a discussion and consideration of your ideas as they relate to the care/condition of the deer, please make your request to either John Pick or me and we will be happy to arrange a meeting with the appropriate staff. I take Citizen and Council concerns very seriously, but John Pick and I administer the staff, not you or any member of the City Council.

Below is my response to the mayor, also dated July 9, 2007. At the time, there was no written policy concerning council members contacting department heads directly. I believe my email response may have triggered the memo from Council President Smith (posted yesterday) that started the most recent effort to shut down the flow of information (the previous one was the email from former Council President Dunn to Mayor Tilghman seeking to establish ways to prevent Council Member Debbie Campbell from talking to department heads.)

Mayor Tilghman,

There is nothing subversive nor personally intended toward you about my request to talk with the interim zoo director to share information concerning the health of an animal brought to my attention by constituents. I only wish to ensure its comfort and to respond soundly to constituents who have expressed concern about it, with communication with the zoo first.

I did not specifically request “a meeting,” but “a few minutes to discuss” the condition of a deer with a perruque head. This can be done by phone. A copy of the respectful email to Mr. Muir follows my signature and photographs of the deer are attached or can be found at the following link: Photos

Since my email to Mr. Muir involved a request for a few minutes of his time at his convenience and his discretion and was not a demand for a meeting on my schedule, my request was obviously not an attempt to “administer the staff.” At his level of responsibility, I would have assumed that Mr. Muir would be empowered to decide such daily routine tasks as taking or making a phone call, whether involving a council member or a citizen.

Therefore, I believe your assessment that my action is a violation of the charter based on the broadest language is not only incorrect, but also curious light of your lack of reaction to the Chief of Police and the former Zoo Director addressing the council on budget matters in conflict with the very distinct charter language prohibiting such actions.

I think it would be valuable for the entire council to receive a copy of the official policy you allude to (I do not have a copy) and to discuss its application to legislators being able to fulfill their legislative duties through ordinary conversations with staff.

This would cover questions such as: Are the agency and department heads not allowed to speak to legislators regarding constituent concerns or city business without express approval from your office? Are agency and department heads not empowered to decide for themselves if their schedules permit meetings or phone calls? Is it only legislators who must clear their communications through your office, or must citizens do so as well? What types of communications and by what method? What is the difference between “a simple question” as noted in your email and “a few minutes to discuss” as noted in mine?

We could also discuss the issue of equity and consistent application. While I have heard other council members say they “talked with Chief Webster” or “worked with Pam Oland,” I have not been copied by Mr. Pick on these exchanges as my inquiries and their responses have been copied to the entire council. I have no problem with my inquiries and the responses being copied as I support open communication. However, the same access to city employees and the same “rules” on dissemination of information should be applied to all council members. That clearly does not seem to be the case. In the public’s interest, at what point do politics leave off and obstructions of the ability to perform legislative duties begin?

We might also address how many hours of city employee time, legislators’ time and taxpayer dollars are spent by current practices vs. a more open avenue of communication.

In the meantime, as a human being who cares for and about animals, let alone a council member, I’m aghast that you would spend time sending an email asserting charter violations toward me for simply endeavoring to help an animal, assist our zoo, and provide accurate information to constituents to address their concerns in a responsible manner, while being mindful of a city agency head’s valuable time by sending a respectful email requesting a few minutes to talk. The original email follows my signature.

In the time spent on this matter, I could have had a productive, brief conversation with the interim zoo director that might benefit an animal that by all accounts, to one degree or another, is suffering from what appears to be a treatable condition.

Terry E. Cohen, Member
Salisbury City Council

In Part 2, I will share the letter I wrote to the Salisbury Zoo Commission chair and to Mr. Muir regarding the deer, the response received last year, and the response this year received after the council was contacted by Joe Albero. In Part 3, I will share links for those who want to learn more about the condition this deer has.