Members of the new Harford County Council are shown during their first meeting on Dec. 2. Under a policy announced this week, members of the media and citizens will no loner be allowed to approach council members at the dais following their meetings. Security concerns were cited for the change by Council President Richard Slutzky.
Members of the new Harford County Council are shown during their first meeting on Dec. 2. Under a policy announced this week, members of the media and citizens will no loner be allowed to approach council members at the dais following their meetings. Security concerns were cited for the change by Council President Richard Slutzky. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Citing security concerns, the Harford County Council's new spokeswoman informed the media Monday evening they are not to try to interview council members one-on-one following council meetings. By Tuesday afternoon, the change was being criticized.

The new policy was outlined in an email sent to members of the media Monday evening by Sherrie Johnson, the council's new director of communications and chief spokesperson.

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"I will handle all media inquiries," Johnson wrote. "Please contact me for questions regarding the County Council. This includes weekdays and weekend questions."

"After the Council meetings, reporters should not approach Council members directly," she continued. "They should speak to me about questions for Council members."

Council President Richard Slutzky said Monday night that concerns for safety of the council members prompted the change, which will apply to citizens attending council meetings, as well as news reporters.

They are being requested not to approach the dais where the seven council members sit, even though such interactions have been occurring since the council became the county's home rule legislative body in December 1972.

"We have been trying to address security concerns about our building and have been working with the Sheriff's Office on this," Slutzky explained, adding that this and other policies are still in "flux."

Security at council meetings is provided through the Sheriff's Office, and visitors must go through a metal detector.

At least two armed deputies are at each meeting, guarding the doors and ushering attendees through the detector. After the meeting, they typically stand near the dais until the room clears.

Meetings expected to draw bigger turnouts or deal with a controversial issue often include far more than two deputies.

Slutzky said other security enhancements have been made to the chambers and elsewhere in the council's building in Bel Air.

He said he understands the issue of people wanting to interact with the council members, including members of the media, "but in the past we didn't have these kinds of international terrorism incidents...these threats of lone terrorists."

He also said some thought has been given to allowing the council members to leave the dais after the meeting and to meet with citizens or the media, but nothing has been settled.

Slutzky said he planned to address the new security protocol in more detail during Tuesday night's council meeting, the second under his presidency.

He said the transfer of Johnson from the office of the county executive to the council was done in part to address the security issue of council members interacting with the media in the chambers.

Longtime councilman Dion Guthrie, who was voted out of his District A seat this year, was surprised to learn of the policy Tuesday, although he had heard of plans to hire Johnson.

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"That doesn't make sense," Guthrie said. "If someone goes up to the dais, how can they stop them? They've got a right to talk to their councilman."

He did not know of any direct threats made against the previous council.

"In my 12 years, the only two things I can think of was the time when [former County Councilwoman] Veronica Chenowith's husband ran up to the dais and scared a couple of us, and one time their son fell in an elevator shaft and [accidentally] just walked up to the dais, which surprised some people," he said.

Within the past couple of years, one man in the front row was also removed by deputies after "ranting and raving," Guthrie recalled. The incident ended without arrests or further escalation.

Bill Wehland, a Bel Air resident who often speaks at council meetings about development-related issues, said he plans to address the new policy Tuesday night.

"I never heard of such a thing, and obviously I am totally against it. How else can you get information from them?" he said.

Wehland noted he brought up development-related issues he felt the past council failed to address at the new council's first meeting earlier this month, and Slutzky told him after the meeting: "You were right on point."

Despite the cordial interaction, Wehland was disappointed to receive no response from anyone on the council about his letter. "The only person I really heard from is [new County Executive] Barry Glassman," who attended the first meeting, Wehland said.

"I don't understand why they are even coming up with such a ruling, where you can't talk to them or even say hello to them," he said, explaining he regularly approaches the dais after meetings and has never received a negative response.

He dismissed Slutzky's rationale of possible terrorism.

"I don't know why security would be an issue. They have guards there, anyway. That is just an excuse, in my opinion," he said.

After failing to get a response from the council on his previous letter, "it just irritated me much, much more."

"It's kind of like the icing on the cake," he added. "You can't even get an answer from them in writing."

Before Monday's announcement about media policy, Slutzky had said in an interview last week that a communications director for the council is "a position that had been contemplated for a long time."

"We have had for years positions we thought were necessary to bring Harford County in alignment with the other [major counties]," he said. Slutzky was elected council president in November after serving the previous 12 years as a district council member.

Johnson had been paid $75,000 as the spokesperson for the executive branch under former county executive David Craig, who left office on Dec. 1 with the swearing in of his successor, Barry Glassman.

Cindy Mumby has been acting as media spokesperson for Glassman's new administration. Mumby said she will continue in that role in addition to serving as deputy director of the Department of Government and Community Relations, as well as K-12 education liaison.

Johnson's position with the council is a transfer that is within the current budget and was made possible through efficiencies, such as Slutzky and other council members passing up health benefits that were budgeted for them, Slutzky said.

Some money for the position also came from funding set aside for possible outside legal counsel, he said.

Johnson will help manage the council's social media and website, as well as initiatives like Councilman Jim McMahan's Coffee Talk, sending out press releases and updating the media on legislation.

"We think she will add a lot to the communications" of the council, Slutzky said.

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