Should a city councillor be able to criticize or even ridicule other members of council on Facebook?
Should a politician take to Twitter and tweet out commentary from the council table at a budget meeting?
If members of the public post tasteless or inaccurate remarks on a politician’s social media page, does the latter have an obligation to delete or correct it?
These are some of the issues that Pitt Meadows council will be grappling with as it takes on a social media policy for councillors.
Coun. Bruce Bell said no member of council should have a Facebook page on which they discuss council issues in a derogatory way, while blocking other members of council.
“I think this policy should go a little bit further and cover that off,” he said, referring to a broad social media policy that will cover all city employees.
The decision was not unanimous.
Coun. Tracy Miyashita pointed out that city councillors can, and do, make themselves available for media interviews in which they disagree with council decisions.
She said social media is a way for councillors to keep people informed.
“It is our own opinion, but that’s why we were elected – for our opinions,” said Miyashita.
She asked whether staff had looked at other cities’ social media policies and received legal advice.
The policy is based on those of other municipalities, but no legal opinion was sought.
Coun. Bill Dingwall echoed Miyashita’s comments.
“Facebook is about friends, and not friends. If you decide not to friend somebody, that should not be a council policy,” he said.
He worried that council’s policy could intrude on an individual councillor’s right to freedom of expression.
“It’s very invasive, what’s being talked about,” he said, and added that council is getting into “really, really rough water.”
Dingwall added that although Facebook is a popular forum, any policy has to be generic in nature, and refer to all social media sites.
Coun. Janis Elkerton said social media posts by councillors often reflected poorly on the last council, and there needs to be formal policy for conduct.
Longtime Coun. Gwen O’Connell posted a cartoon to her personal Facebook page that was widely criticized as tasteless and profane during the last term of council. It was visible to the general public.
“We’re held to a higher standard,” Elkerton said. “We may not agree all the time, we may not be best friends, but we have to be professional.”
She noted that a White Rock councillor allegedly made defamatory remarks about a fellow councillor in his online newspaper, and was censured by council and removed from public duties.
“We don’t want to get into mudslinging,” she said. “We have to work as a group, so just be respectful to the whole group.”
Elkerton agreed council has to tread carefully around the individual’s freedom of expression.
“It’s a hard call. You can’t control everything.”
Mayor John Becker said the city’s social media policy for elected government officials should not be the same as for employees.
He said council should decide whether all social media sites maintained by councillors, including Facebook, should be deemed to be public, notwithstanding events of privacy.
He asked: Is it appropriate to block other councillors from social media pages? Is it appropriate to be on social media during meetings? Is there an obligation to edit offensive posts by third parties? Inaccurate posts?
“These are questions which, to my way of thinking, need to be discussed by this council, to either say ‘yes, no, maybe,’” said Becker. “Or ignore it, and leave it wide open to each of us to make our own determinations.”
The matter was referred back to staff, to create a new policy for elected officials, separate from city employees.