Can ‘friends’ mean trouble?

Loujane Johns
What kind of issues arise from elected and appointed officials using social networks for official business?

A recent  article in “Planning News,” a publication of the New York Planning Federation brings up some interesting points about the use of Facebook and Twitter sites by volunteer board members.

Patricia E. Salkin, Esq. is Associate Dean and the Raymond & Ella Smith Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany University.  Her article, “Do Social Networking Sites Create Problems for Board Members?” raises questions about board members, but certainly could relate to other public offices.

State, local and federal governments have been using the internet to make information available to the public for some time.  

Reaching over 500 million people all over the world, Facebook is being used by local governments to elicit comments from the public on planning, zoning and other local issues.

The cities of San Jose, Calif. and Charlotte, N.C. have been using a tool called Wikiplanning which allows residents to “attend meetings” remotely, and gives a voice to the silent majority.  In Charlotte, 700 people expressed their opinion on a rail station.

Social networking can be used to engage the public, pro or con, and can reach the uniformed.  Readers can see all the information and other people’s comments.  With no additional costs involved, it beats mailing surveys.

Fairfax County, Va. government is on Facebook and Twitter.  The site offers podcasts on timely issues.  Next week the public can submit questions to the sheriff on immigration issues.

All of this seems like a giant step towards public involvement in government transparency, but it does have pitfalls.

Redondo Beach, Calif. quit using Facebook in August because of legal concerns.  Under the state’s Public Record Act, all comments would have to be saved.  First Amendment rights protect comments that could be libelous or offensive.  And finally, a point brought up in many places, if three members of a five member board comment, is this a violation of the open meeting law?

Other nay-sayers of government internet use suggest that poor income groups and the elderly are among those who may not be reached to give comments through Facebook or other online sources.

There is also concern that opinions can be skewed.  A website called “Purslane” explains how to use Facebook and Twitter to leverage support.  “If you ask a politician to become ‘a friend,’ they won’t ignore you if they want to get re-elected,” the information says. “Super Supporters” can be identified by frequent postings.

In her article, Salkin discusses how these social networking sites are used for a wide circle of friends and family, but what if a “friend” is someone a planning board member will be reviewing an application for?  

Should comments on the application be posted, and should the board member disclose the link?  The comment is out there for the whole world to see.

Salkin also asks what to do about a “friend” not connected with a project urging your support or opposition. Should the official answer, delete or disclose the comment or connection?

The Chronicle-Express reached out to several Yates County Legislators and other local elected and appointed officials at the town and village level. We  asked them to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of social networking.  

Here are some replies:

Rich Stewart, Penn Yan Village Trustee

Stewart says there can be many advantages to Facebook/Twitter accounts.  He sees it as a way to improve communications between the government and constituents.  “I feel misunderstandings and rumors will decrease when people hear the whole story from their elected and appointed leaders, including the reason behind their decisions.”

Stewart says one person came to speak on a recent hearing on amending the village Ethic Law. “We are not guaranteed that his opinion was representative of the community.”  Stewart says online response will give a clearer picture.

The challenge Stewart sees in keeping a site updated and accurate.  But he believes it would be a worthy effort.

“I believe that the list of “friends” should be made public.  When considering an opinion, a “friend” might have more background than a “non-friend,” but every response should be looked at individually.  A friend — virtual or real — should not receive special consideration when they come in front of a board or agency, Stewart says.

Brad Jones, Town of  Italy Supervisor

Jones says he is leery about using any of the social networking sites for any aspect of town business.  “My concerns relate to privacy, confidentiality and accountability issues,” he explained via email.

Cliff Orr, Chair, Penn Yan Planning Board

Orr says he welcomes public discourse.  “I have been known to call for a public hearing, even when we are not legally required to as it gives the planning board the opportunity to observe if we as a board, are in tune with citizens’ views,” he wrote in response.

Orr also believes if local government actively participates in social networking to hear and be heard, they will get a broader group of citizens expressing their views on issues.

“What I would like to see is local government giving the public more heads up in their future agendas and to solicit public input from multiple media sources,” he explains.

Neil Simmons, Councilman, Town of Jerusalem

Simmons admits he doesn’t do much social networking.  “At present, I try hard to do all my e-mails, text messages, letters, phone messages, cell and verbal, one on one.  Simmons says he gets information from the newspaper, television and radio.

“My wife and kids tell me about all I’m missing, but I hate to give up sleep to do more communicating.  Fishing or hunting with the grandkids or maybe even working gives me more satisfaction,” he explains.

If discussions haven’t begun yet, elected officials on several levels will eventually need to consider the implications of interacting with the public using various forms of technology.

Are small local agencies equipped to manage the data? Do current policies about communication and confientiality cover all the bases?

These questions and more bring up ethical and legal issues in regard to government and social networking.  If you have an opinion, please share it. Send your comments to chroniclenews1@rochester.rr.com or comment on this story below.