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Social Media Policies: Do Carroll County, Md., Municipalities Need Them?

With a growing trend toward connectivity, some municipalities think politicians' social media presence ought to be regulated, while others think it's a waste of time.

by Wiley Hayes, Carroll County Times, Westminster, Md. / September 8, 2015

(TNS) -- In an age when staying in touch with friends and family or keeping tabs on the activities of your elected officials is as easy as logging onto Facebook or Twitter, an inevitable result of this ease of access is an unfettered medium for anyone's thoughts. Some local governments in Carroll, Md., have taken steps to ensure the behavior and language used on their public accounts is managed appropriately; others say there's no need.

Of Carroll's eight municipalities, New Windsor and Hampstead have adopted social media policies outlining the purpose of their social media accounts, as well as what comments are impermissible. The town of Manchester is currently working on creating a similar policy.

"[Social media] is a good communication outlet, but you have to watch out for some things out there and be very careful of what's going on," Manchester Town Manager Steve Miller said.

But Carroll County government has yet to do so, and all five commissioners say it is unlikely they would support such a policy.

"I would like to think that professional employees don't need to be babysat on things like this," said Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1. "I would caution them as to what they do on their social media pages, but I don't see the need to have anything concrete."

Details of New Windsor Policy

During a meeting Sept. 2, the New Windsor mayor and Town Council unanimously adopted a social media policy. It states that the council "recognizes that the widespread use of the Internet and social media systems has changed the nature of communication," and "these new forms of discussion result in a need for a uniform policy with regard to their use."

Mayor Neal Roop said he recently started a Town of New Windsor Facebook group, "so if there was something that needed to be deleted, I wanted to have a policy to do that."

"I didn't want a personal battleground for people," Roop said.

The policy identifies town social media sites' purpose, which is to disseminate information related to public matters. It also lays out guidelines for visitors and the types of comments that are restricted, including profanity, sexual content, discriminatory remarks and personal attacks, among other things.

Hampstead adopted a similar policy in 2010, according to Mayor Christopher Nevin, and Manchester is in the midst of developing a social media policy and hopes to adopt one in the next two to three months, Miller said.

New Windsor also updated its personnel policy to curtail how employees use the town's social media sites as well as their personal accounts.

"Employees should be mindful that they represent the Town of New Windsor even in their time off work," the policy states. "Reports of inappropriate use of social media will be investigated and disciplinary action may be taken."

Jim Peck, director of research and information management for the Maryland Municipal League, said the organization tends not to have a specific recommendation on the implementation of a social media policy. Peck added that he has received a small handful of inquiries from the state's municipalities on social media policies in the past few years.

"I can't say how widely it's discussed, but if the number of questions I get is indicative, it's not a common topic," he said. "I think a lot of these things come up because a problem arises, and when that happens someone says, 'We need to address this with a policy.' "

Both Roop and Nevin said their policies were proactive, not reactive.

"I don't recall any controversial thing other than we were starting to use more social media, so that's what drove the decision," Nevin said.

Commissioners Respond

Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, said he doesn't see a need for the county to adopt such a policy.

"Most of our folks know how to govern themselves," Howard said. "I hate to say never, but our personnel policy governs our employees if they act inappropriately."

Kim Frock, director of the county's Department of Human Resources, said Carroll's personnel policy addresses the use of county-owned equipment but is silent on the use of both public and private social media accounts.

Howard questioned the limitations New Windsor's policy puts on its employees regarding their use of personal social media accounts.

"I would be concerned about putting a policy together that governs their own social media outside of work," Howard said. "I would be inclined not to want to do that, particularly since we don't have a need."

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said that while a local government can regulate the use of its own website, there are oversight limits.

"Maryland law specifically provides that the state cannot retaliate on political activities [employees] engage in on their own time," Rothschild said.

New Windsor's policy states that any comment that "promotes particular services, products or political activity" is prohibited and may be removed.

Hampstead's policy states that "comments in support of, or in opposition to, any political campaigns or ballot measures" shall not be permitted on the town's social media sites.

"No one benefits from a censorship policy that attempts to restrict what a citizen says on their own personal time off," Rothschild said. "If someone says they feel the government is stupid because they are spending too much money on paper clips, they have the right to do that."

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, agreed with Howard and said he doesn't think the county needs a policy.

"If you work for the county hopefully you have enough pride in your job to keep it appropriate," Weaver said. "Even though we don't have a hard policy on this, we've never had an issue."

New Windsor's change to its personnel policy might be overstepping some boundaries, he said.

"I would never tell anyone what they could do in their own personal life," Weaver said. "If you are going to condemn what's going on in the county and you are a county employee you might want to exercise some good sense, but there won't be any repercussions that come from it."

However, while he disagrees with a policy that attempts to govern what an employee does during their time off, employees do have commitments to their employers that can extend beyond their time on the clock.

"If you seek employment with someone, you have obligations during the work day and they extend beyond those work hours," Weaver said. "Our employees represent the county, and they have to act appropriately."

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said he would prefer not to comment on New Windsor's decision to adopt its social media policy, but he disagreed with the town's choice to amend its personnel policy.

"Social media on [employee's] time, I don't see how we could do anything about that," Frazier said. "I can't see us limiting what you can do on your time."

Unless a situation were to arise that showed Carroll was in need of one, he doubts he would support such a policy, he said.

Municipalities' Reactions

Sykesville Mayor Ian Shaw said that while the town does not have a social media policy, "I think it's something we should explore."

"I don't think we have one yet because we haven't had this issue, but maybe it's something we should look at," Shaw said. "The biggest problem with social media is the misinformation out there on other websites that aren't fact."

Carroll's four other municipalities — Mount Airy, Taneytown, Union Bridge and Westminster — do not have existing social media policies.

Mount Airy Mayor Pat Rockinberg said this "is the first I've heard of it."

Westminster City Administrator Marge Wolfe said the city does not "regulate individuals."

"There's no guidance on what they can do personally with it," Wolfe said. "We don't have a set policy."

Westminster Common Council President Robert Wack said he has a mixed reaction to the creation of a social media policy. While the private sector has all sorts of policies regarding the use of social media by employees, it might not be appropriate for government to impose such limitations, he said.

"It does start to slide toward where the employer gets to dictate what you say," Wack said. "I see that this is an issue, and I see why another municipality might do this, but it's not without some complications — and some risk."

©2015 the Carroll County Times (Westminster, Md.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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