Articles

Salem, Mass., Selectmen Debate Social Media Goals

Questions have been raised about selectmen's use of Facebook to express personal opinions and a board member's responsibilities as an elected official.

by Doug Ireland, The Eagle-Tribune / April 8, 2015

(TNS) — There was very little finger-pointing, but when selectmen discussed social media protocol Monday night, there was little doubt who they were talking about.

The board met with Salem's attorney, Bart Mayer, for more than hour as it drafts a policy on selectmen's dealings with social media and email.

The discussion came as selectmen begin their new year following the elections in March.

Selectman Patrick Hargreaves raised questions about selectmen's use of Facebook to express personal opinions and asked about a board member's responsibilities as an elected official.

"Am I selectman when I want to be or am I a selectman 24/7?" he asked.

Without mentioning any names, it was clear Hargreaves was referring to situations involving Selectman Stephen Campbell.

Campbell received a warning from fellow selectmen this winter when they believed he posted confidential information on his Facebook page.

He was outspoken in his personal opposition to a proposal for a $23.7 million public safety complex defeated by voters at the polls last month. The four other selectmen supported the project.

Campbell has said he was entitled to express his opposition on the complex as a resident even though the board voted as a whole to support the project.

"We all made promises to voters, 'This is what I stand for, this is what I do,'" Campbell said.

Hargreaves has said Campbell regularly expresses his views as a selectman when convenient and then voices his opinions as a resident.

"You are a selectman all the time in the context of what you release to the public," Mayer said. "You have to be conscious of the fact you are a selectman 24 hours a day."

Mayer also told the board an elected official could be removed from office if confidential information is released publicly.

He said selectmen should be careful when they communicate through email because a discussion involving at least three board members constitutes an illegally held public meeting under the state's open meeting law.

Also Monday, selectmen outlined their goals for the year, drawing a heated response from Town Manager Keith Hickey as he criticized the board's budget priorities.

Hickey was the only one to point fingers, telling selectmen they tend to drag out the annual budget process and overburden his staff with requests for information.

"Candidly, the budget process is as long as it is because of the five people sitting here at the table," he said. "You guys are the ones holding the cards."

The town manager's comments came as Selectmen's Chairman James Keller recommended the board streamline its budget review by dealing with certain fiscal issues as early as spring, well before they review proposed spending with the department heads in the fall.

"Let's just have these discussions earlier," Keller said.

But Hickey wasn't satisfied.

"The board set a budget goal last year and didn't meet it," Hickey said. "We need to be realistic in the goals we are setting."

Hickey had recommended a proposed town budget of $34.9 million for 2015, a 1.2 percent increase over 2014.

But selectmen set a goal of limiting the budget increase to no more than 1 percent, prompting Hickey to propose major cuts.

Those cuts included elimination of the entire recreation department and cutting funding for four firefighters and the regional bus service. Selectmen later voted to restore funding for those items.

Selectmen presented 38 proposals for improvement in town operations Monday. They included improving efficiency in the town clerk's office where residents have been critical of the wait time.

Some of the delay is related to the amount of time it takes to deal with the state portion of motor vehicle registrations, Keller said.

"What I keep hearing is the system is slow," he said. "I hear it over and over and over again."

Town Clerk Susan Wall said Tuesday her staff is doing the best it can to deal with the problem, but processing the registrations is time consuming and often involves calls to the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

"The wait we just can't help," she said. "I know people don't want to wait, but there's not much we can do."

©2015 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC