July 25, 2014

Council revises city’s social media policy

Danedri Thompson
dthompson@gardnernews.com
An attorney advised city elected officials to put disclaimers on social media announcing that their opinions are not the official position of the city of Gardner.
City council members approved a revision of the Gardner’s social media policy during a city council meeting on Feb. 17.
The social media policy suggests the disclaimer: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the City’s position or opinions.”
Updates to the policy include language to cover appointed and elected officials, better adherence to Kansas Open Meetings Act and Kansas Open Records Request policies, and guidelines for incorporation and management of departmental sites.
“The area of social media and the intersection of law is moving so rapidly, there really isn’t any right (policy) answer,” Courtney Kroger, a consulting attorney for Midwest Public Risk, told council.
The law, Kroger said, isn’t well established yet. For example, do discussions between a quorum of the governing bodies on social media constitute an open meeting? Is the city required to keep and supply a document of its postings on various social media sites? There are also First Amendment, or free speech, concerns.
Kroger strongly encouraged council to maintain a policy, rather than go without.
“I think you’re in worse trouble if you don’t have a policy,” Kroger said.
Kroger also suggested that if council members or staff want to supply information about an event or policy on social media, they should link to the city website instead of paraphrasing information from the city’s website.
Council member Larry Fotovich worried that the policy may limit a whistleblower type from coming forward. For example, he said a city employee may have tried to approach his boss about a concern that continues to be ignored. The employee may decide to post about the problem in order to get the attention of someone who can solve it. Fotovich said he worried the employee would be terminated under the revised policy.
Kroger said in a situation like that, the employee would likely be protected by whistleblower laws.
Fotovich also expressed concern about a part of the policy that requires elected officials stop discussing issues if asked by the “city.”
First, said the term, “city” is vague. Fotovich said the policy should probably be specific and reference the city attorney or city administrator.
“There may be instances in which an appointed or elected official should not comment on a particular issue,” the policy reads. “This could occur if the discussion might violate laws, regulations or confidentiality, or if a claim or lawsuit has been filed against the city.”
Fotovich voted against the social media policy revision. The remainder of the council supported the updated policy, though member Steve Shute said he was somewhat reluctant.
“The concern I have is where do we go too far on the side of caution that we infringe on free speech,” Shute said.
In other business, city council members:
• passed an ordinance to approve electric utility rate changes. The new rates went into effect in January and were adopted by the electric utility board last October. However, state statute requires that council members set rates.
• approved repairs to the step screen at the Kill Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
• held an executive session in order to discuss the city administrator’s evaluation.

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