This past week another municipality, Redondo Beach CA, disabled their facebook account due to fears of legal troubles resulting from open meetings and open records violation. While the city still uses twitter and youtube, the loss of facebook was criticized by the mayor of the town as “a big mistake”. And while transparency and preventing records violations are of the utmost importance, I can’t help but agree with the mayor.
The us of new social media like facebook and twitter by cities and municipalities presents a unique method for interacting with and notifying their constituencies. The problem that arises with a website like facebook is the need to maintain the information to comply with open records policies and the worry that the comment features will result in either open meetings violations or inappropriate comments that are protected by free speech. However, this problem can be circumvented with a few clear steps which would allow municipalities to embrace a method of communication that would reach a large portion of their citizens.
#1)Understand the goal
Too many municipalities approach Facebook with the goal of creating a method for interactive or dynamic communication between themselves and their citizens. They see the status updates and wall posts as a new democratic forum. While there is certainly room for the advancement of digital democratic forums, Facebook’s international reach and inability to back up content renders it a less ideal method for achieving this goal. For municipalities, Facebook should be used to post concrete information, including information related to municipal contact information, meeting times, links to agendas and status updates concerning upcoming meetings. While, most of the information I would recommend putting on the site can be found on numerous municipality websites, the benefit of using Facebook is that it would reach citizens with real time updates on issues. Municipalities should keep this goal in mind when establishing privacy settings. They should be open to Facebook “friending” anyone while at the same time keeping their wall and contact information transparent and open for viewing to everyone it insure ease of access for those interested.
While every municipality and public body should be open to critique and comment, Facebook may not be the best method for doing so. The potential to add comments presents serious problems for open meetings violation when repeated comments are made by city council members. In addition, hostile comments which would be protected by free political speech are not well suited for a Facebook environment. Municipalities should disable comments and disallow anyone from posting on their walls to prevent these issues. This can be done by simply entering the accounts privacy settings and making the appropriate changes.
#3)Messages and a dedicated email
Not to disable all means of Facebook communication, municipalities should still employ the message features on Facebook to allow citizens easy access to comment on the political happenings of the town or city. However, municipality directors should have the foresight to use a dedicated email address to send and receive(more receive) only Facebook comments and information. In addition, this email address should be fully transparent and comply fully with the states open records laws.
#4)Keep it simple:don’t comment and avoid messaging
Unfortunately for municipalities, for Facebook to be feasible within transparency laws, communication needs to be extremely restricted. Due to open records restrictions, municipalities need to avoid commenting on other peoples status’s and avoid writing on their walls. Comments should be restricted to their own wall posts and nothing more. In addition, municipalities should be cautious about sending messages with the message feature for the same reason. Instead, municipalities could use their dedicated facebook email accounts to reply to messages, thus insuring the preservation of emails and transparency. If a municipality decided to use the message feature, either to reply to messages sent or to send broad messages to large citizen groups then the municipality should be cautious and always save a back up of the message off facebook, including the list of individuals sent to. Finally, and it goes without saying, don’t install and use any applications. That is just asking for trouble!
By restricting comments to only wall posts and preventing other citizens from commenting or posting on the municipalities wall, public bodies insure that a simple record can be maintained to include all wall posts for the purposes of compliance with public records laws. At the end of each day, assign a public employee the task of taking five minutes and copying the wall posts into the appropriate shared document and maintaining those wall posts for future records requests. This, combined with the dedicated email address, will assure compliance with the open records act, and prevent open meetings abuses and inappropriate comments from surfacing on a city website.
While this structure is less than ideal, and doesn’t provide the same benefits as the interactive website may offer the average citizen, it is none-the-less useful and helpful tool for both the public body and citizens. Posting contact information and meetings calendars can be an extremely useful use of the bio portion of the facebook page. In addition, while this information may already be made available on the website, it may reach a different group of constituents on facebook. In addition the use of status updates to post meeting announcements, links to agendas and minutes as well as general local news would allow municipalities and governing bodies the opportunity to send a constant stream of important governmental information to their citizens. While it can’t be treated like a personal account, so long as governing bodies follow the five guidelines outlined above, problems with transparency laws and inappropriate comments should be eliminated and citizens and the government alike may enjoy the benefits of more direct contact and notification about important local events and governmental decisions.
Editor of WikiFOIA