Puslinch removes third-party News sources from website; new policy in the works

Puslinch councillors recently voted to remove online News information sources from the municipal website.

Council’s March 2 decision followed the presentation of a staff report on website content, that recommended either removing existing News information sources or providing the opportunity to all online News information sources.

In recent months, banner ads promoting the websites of both the Puslinch Pioneer and Puslinch Today appeared near the top of the Puslinch website homepage.

In her report to council, communications associate Marissa Herner stated there needs to be a consistent approach for the representation of businesses, organizations, and News information sources on the township website.

Herner also stated the need to establish a consistent approach in the evaluation of requests from third-party organizations to externally link their website from the township’s website.

In addition, the township needed to develop a policy to establish parameters under which the township will post content from third-party organizations on its municipally-owned and operated website.

The report was the result of a councillor inquiring in September about whether links to Puslinch Today and Puslinch Pioneer should be included on the township’s website.

Staff conducted a review of all township website content that referenced third-party businesses, organizations, and online News information sources and determined there are two different types of representation that third-party organizations have on those websites.

The first is representation on a directory (such as the business directory or community group page) or a page that is dedicated to a service (such as cemeteries or churches) where multiple organizations are listed on a single page with a direct link to their website.

The second was representation on the website’s homepage banner and a private page where the organization has a content write-up and direct link to their website.

Herner’s report stated information from other municipalities indicates “it is not common practice for municipalities to dedicate banners or private pages on their website to third-party organizations.”

“Further, staff did not find an example where a banner, private page, or link was provided to online News information sources.”

As a result, staff recommend the township establish a formal policy that sets parameters for organizations that are represented on the website and delegates where organizations are represented on the site.

Councillor Susan Fielding said she thought about the matter quite a bit and her journalism background led her to the conclusion that “there should be a separation of the government and the media.”

“The media has to report on us, they are like our unofficial watchdog,” Fielding said.

“I fully believe the media should be free and open to say whatever they want.”

However, Fielding considered having those outlets perceived as part of the township website “is misleading not only to the public, but might inhibit them from being as open as they want to be.”

She also referenced “the era of the ‘SmellyWelly’ website, stating the person running that  site was attempting to pass himself off as a reporter.” She asked how the township can say no to one organization and not another.

Councillor Matthew Bulmer agreed. However, he also noted the township website has several local businesses profiled on separate pages of the website – “Do they pay for that profile?”

CAO Karen Landry said when the website was being developed, it was organized by one council member, staff and citizen/business representation.

At that time, it was recommended that there be content to promote what was available in the municipality.

However, if a new business was to request a profile, the township currently has no policy on how to respond.

“We need to provide equal opportunity for all,” said Bulmer, who agreed that a strength of the municipal website is being able to provide a business listing as part of its economic development role.

Landry noted that if council voted in favour, references to the News sources would be removed immediately, but staff would still require time to develop a website policy – as it relates to how to treat businesses equally on the municipal website.

Mayor Dennis Lever agreed it is important there is equal opportunity, especially for non-profit groups.

He also believed tourism and community directories  would be the best approach as well, noting, “We need to make sure everyone in the township is treated the same.”

Council voted to remove the News information sources from the website and to direct staff to prepare and present a website policy to council.