Town officials of Oyster Bay, N.Y., likely aren’t scoring points with transparency advocates after clamping down on how the town’s information is released through social networks. But legal experts believe the more cautious approach is a good one for many local governments.
The Long Island town revised its information technology policy to prohibit employees from communicating official documents through social media applications without prior authorization, according to Newsday. Although the move may slow interaction between residents and the town, Chuck Thompson, general counsel and executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, felt the decision might help address one of the biggest issues local governments are currently struggling with -- disclosure requirements.
For example, if a local government has a bond issue outstanding and sends information out in a way that might get to one investor before another, Thompson believes the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission may view that as a violation. That's just one concern in a litany of other privacy laws and limitations a municipality may be subject to on both the state and federal levels.
“There is good reason for a local government to control release of its information,” Thompson said. “Not so much to restrict the dissemination of the information, but to insure that it is disseminated properly.”
Sheila Gladstone, principal with the Lloyd Gosselink Rochelle & Townsend, P.C. law firm in Austin, Texas, agreed. She told Government Technology that there have been concerns with her clients where information was sent out so quickly without enough thought and care, and city leaders were held responsible in the public view for messages they didn’t approve.
Newsday reported that Oyster Bay’s revised IT policy could penalize employees who don’t follow dissemination procedures with suspension of computer system use or possibly legal action. Deputy Town Supervisor Leonard Genova told the paper that further revisions to the policy language will be done to clarify that residents attempting to communicate with town officials through electronic means are not subject to the policy.
Messages left with Oyster Bay officials to comment on the policy changes were not returned.
Gladstone noted that in the “old days,” documents and other data were carefully vetted before they were released to the public. And while local government employees might communicate unauthorized statements on the phone, that doesn’t have the same impact as transmitting data to thousands of people at the touch of a button.
In situations where cities have a public information officer, Gladstone urged municipalities to re-write their social media policies to make sure requests for comment and information are routed to the PIO. That way the responsibility of sending out information is clearly defined.
Yet, Gladstone also acknowledged that technology has changed the expectations a city faces from the public regarding communication and that too firm a policy could have a chilling effect on city business.
“Often a policy starts out strict, but then eases into a more practical groove in actual application,” Gladstone said.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.