At the last two meetings of the Brattleboro Selectboard, members of the board and the Chief of Police implored people NOT to use social media for official business, such as reporting crimes.
“Don’t rely on social media,” said board member Tim Wessel. “Social media has never been a form of reporting things,” added Chair Brandie Starr.
Where could the public have gotten such a crazy idea as to use social media for town business? Perhaps from members of the Selectboard?
In previous meetings, board members encouraged people to go to social media for nearly everything. “We need to get that out on social media” has been a common refrain over the last year.
And now the public is chastised for doing the same.
Of course, the public has become confused. Brattleboro’s “Social Media Policy” has been ignored by board members and staff alike, making it more difficult for the public to know what to do, or where to do it.
How is it supposed to work?
According to the Brattleboro’s social media policy, the policy is administered by the Town Manager and applies to ALL employees, elected officials, volunteers, appointees, public bodies and other authorized affiliated organizations.
The Town Manager grants permission to administer and post comments by making a social media user an “Authorized Town Official”. Those doing so represent the Town, even when they are outside the workplace. All accounts are subject to the approval of the Town Manager.
Those wishing to use social media on behalf of the Town make a request to the Town Manager via “Addendum A – Acknowledgement of Official Use by Authorized Town Officials.” Requests should included a written plan for complying with the Vermont Public Records Law. The Town Manager reviews all requests for social media use, and confirms completion of online training for social media if necessary.
I asked Town Manager Peter Elwell for copies of these Addendum A requests to see how each person planned to comply with the public records law. None could be provided.
Who oversees all official social media for Brattleboro?
The Town Manager, according to the policy, is responsible for keeping a list of all social networking application domain names in use, the names of all Town administrators of these accounts, as well as the associated user identifications and active passwords.
I requested this list and it, too, could not be provided. “Several Town departments operate websites and social media accounts, mostly for the distribution of information (not for dialogue),” said Elwell.
The Town Manager “monitor, manage, and oversee all content on each social media site to ensure adherence to this policy, including appropriate use, messaging, and branding that is consistent with the interests, goals, and objectives of the Town.”
Elwell declined to say how much time he spends monitoring, managing, and overseeing these accounts. “Some individual Selectboard members operate social media accounts that are specific to their Selectboard related work,” he said. And, despite the official policy he said ” Each is individually responsible for their own accounts.”
What about board members and town staff?
As for board members and staff, for those who respond to a comment on social media, “names and titles should be included.”
The policy offers this confusing suggestion: “Only the Authorized Town Official shall post comments on the site for which they are responsible. Other members of Town boards and committees shall not post comments on their respective social media sites.”
Board members and staff “are discouraged from using personal accounts to comment on or post information to Town social media sites, and/or posting information regarding Town business on other social media sites.”
They do get a bit of general training, according to Elwell. “As part of their introduction to service on the Selectboard, each member receives guidance from the town regarding the Open Meetings Law and the importance of avoiding communications among 3 or more members regarding any Selectboard business outside of a public meeting.”
When asked to provide a transcript of communications between a board member and the public via phone, mentioned and referred to during a public meeting, none could be provided. On the topic of private communications during public meetings via phone apps, Elwell said “Most or all (board members) stated publicly that they do not use their phones for Town business during meetings. Some indicated it is important to them to have their phones handy in case an urgent personal message comes in during a meeting.”
And the keeping of public records?
A big concern about social media use is record-keeping, both by the public and in the policy. The policy states that “All social media site comments and posts made by Town officials are subject to Vermont Public Records Law, Open Meetings Law, and all other applicable laws, rules, policies, charter provisions and regulations.”
Everything posted to social media can be considered a public record, according to the policy.
“The Town’s official website and Town social media sites shall clearly indicate that any articles and any other content or comments posted or submitted for posting in whatever format are subject to public disclosure. Content related to Town business shall be maintained in an accessible format so that it can be produced in response to a public records request. Users shall be notified that public disclosure requests must be directed to the proper custodian of public records. The name, title, and contact information for the proper custodian of public records shall be posted on each Town social media site.”
As it says, these records must be maintained:
“Relevant Town records retention schedules apply to content on the Town’s official website as well as to Town social media sites. Content posted or submitted for posting shall be retained pursuant to Vermont’s Public Records Law in its standard format and in accordance with applicable disposition orders and retention schedules as established by the Vermont State Archivist.”
The Town Manager, when asked, had no answer for how I could get copies of social media interactions between board members and the public.
How must social media be used by town officials?
Selectboard members are included in the policy, as “elected officials.”
Town officials must add a disclaimer to their pages. “Users and visitors to Town social media sites shall be notified that the intended purpose of the site is to serve as a mechanism for communication between authorized Town officials and members of the public.”
Some behavior is not permitted, such as profanity, off-topic comments, anything illegal, or anything defamatory.
All content posted by the public must be allowed to remain, if it is on topic. (National legal cases since the policy has been implemented also suggest that public officials may not block any member of the public from their pages or feeds.)
Town officials using social media need to be careful about what they post.
“Members (elected or appointed) of any Town public body should refrain from using Town social media sites to discuss the business of the public body or taking action by the public body in violation of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. Furthermore, members of public bodies should refrain from commenting on or responding to inquiries related to quasi-judicial matters within the subject matter jurisdiction of their respective public bodies.”
“Public boards and committees may utilize Town social media for gather public input related to the role with which it has been charged by statute or the Town Selectboard, provided that the use is authorized in accordance with and conforms to this policy.”
and officials may not make “Comments in support or in opposition to political campaigns or ballot measures of any kind.”
Are there disclaimers or notices required?
Each town official social media site has required disclaimers, and each must display the Town seal.
“All Town social media sites shall clearly indicate that they are maintained by the Town and shall prominently display necessary Town contact information. All Town social media sites shall include the prominent placement of the official Town seal, if available, along with the following notification:
This is the official (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,etc.) page for the Town of Brattleboro, Vermont. If you are looking for more information about the Town of Brattleboro, Vermont please visit [insert URL address of Town website]. The purpose of the Town page is to provide general public information only. Should you require a response from the Town or wish to request Town services, you must go to [insert URL address of Town website], if appropriate, or contact the Town at [insert Town office phone number and/or email address.]”
“The following notification shall be made accessible on all Town social media sites and on the Town’s official website.
If you believe that any material on the Town’s official website or Town social media site infringes on any copyright which you own or control, or that any link on the Town’s social media site directs users to another website that contains material that infringes on any copyright that you own or control, you may file a notification of such infringement with the Town’s Designated Agent as set forth below. Notifications of claimed copyright infringement must be sent to the Town of Brattleboro, Vermont’s Designated Agent, for notice of claims of copyright infringement. The Town of Brattleboro, Vermont’s Designated Agent may be reached as follows:
Address of Designated Agent:
Telephone Number of Designated Agent:
Email Address of Designated Agent:”
A quick survey of town official social media pages showed none of this required language.
What happens next?
Looking at both the policy and a survey of “official” social media pages, it is rather clear that the policy is being ignored. There are “official” pages for some departments, while others have web sites. No one is complying with public records law, disclaimers are missing, and oversight is lacking. The public is often told to “look for it on social media,” which seems to imply “visit my page.” But some board members and staff often have multiple pages, and the lines get blurred quickly.
It is no wonder the public is confused. Someone new to town would need to magically know which town officials had pages and which did not, and then they’d have to guess as to where to find them. Twitter? Facebook? Instagram? LinkedIn? YouTube? Classmates.com? Wikipedia list hundreds of “social media” sites.
Even if this new person could figure this out, they would likely be required to register with some multinational corporation and agree to allow tracking of their online behavior in order to “participate” with these officials.
Most important, Brattleboro now has a growing gap in public records.
Town Manager Elwell said a new policy would be developed. “We know that the Town’s social media policy is outdated. We are planning to have a new one sometime in the next few months. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns is finalizing a new model social media policy for all Vermont’s municipalities. Bob Fisher and I anticipate that the Town will either adopt that model policy for Brattleboro or adapt it, if necessary, to meet our particular needs.”
“I expect that the new social media policy will provide clear rules regarding all three of these enumerated situations (and more),” he said.
How the Town of Brattleboro plans to collect the required public records from the last few years remains to be seen.