City Councilman's Social Media Post Prompts Concern
SAN ANGELO, TX - Social media is now a part of everyday life. Even the President of the United States spends his time on Twitter; however, for many people, including those in leadership positions, it can be hard to separate their professional life from their personal on the internet. The question now is, do the same rules apply, or should they apply to people who are elected to a public office?
In this day and age, the number of people who have some form of social media greatly outnumbers those who don’t, and just like everyone else, people in public service are entitled to share their lives with their friends and family. However, although posts can be deleted from a person’s account, shares, re-tweets and screenshots can immortalize a person’s words online forever.
Recently, one local city leader has been under fire for his posts to social media. San Angelo LIVE! received complaints about a tweet shared on San Angelo City Councilman Bill Richardson's Facebook page. The post (unedited) said:
"For the first time in over sixty years we have a president who believes white males deserve equal rights as promised in the American Constitution. NA! It is time to stop blaming white males for all the worlds problems."
As soon as this post hit the council member's Facebook page, his followers took to the comments section and voiced their dismay at such remarks from a city leader. Some were so offended that a council member would say such a thing that LIVE! received several complaints with screenshots of the post.
"How can someone in his position say such a thing," one person asked?
Although this council member complained previously that his Facebook is private and he has the right to say what he wishes on his social media, people who have access to his page share posts publicly, which can cause problems, even if the councilman's words were not meant to be harmful or disrespectful. The post has since been removed, but people had enough time to screenshot it and some of the angry comments.
Because of the complaints received, which is not the first time for this individual, San Angelo LIVE! reached out to the City of San Angelo and city council members to determine if there are rules governing social media usage by city leaders, and what city council members believe should be the appropriate conduct while using social media.
We first reached out to the City’s Public Information Officer, Anthony Wilson. He explained that the City created a Code of Ethics approved in March of 2008 that details the expectations the City of San Angelo has for those people elected to represent the citizens on the city council.
In its preamble, the code states, “The citizens and businesses of San Angelo are entitled to have fair, ethical and accountable local government, which has earned the public’s full confidence for integrity.”
In order to make sure that members rise to this standard, there are several items addressed in the code. Things like acting in the public’s best interest, ensuring that both “personal and professional conduct is above reproach” and creating a positive work place environment are crucial in carrying out their duties as council members. The complete code of ethics can be read here.
Additionally, on June 3, 2015, COSA engaged in Social Media Training with City of San Angelo employees, and a Power Point of the training is available to the public. Here is what one slide had to say about the City's social media policy:
For more information on the Do's and Don'ts of what City employees and leaders should do, review the Power Point here.
To weigh in more on the topic, we contacted city council members and the mayor to get their feedback regarding the use of social media as city officials.
Mayor Dwain Morrison explained he avoids posting and responding to posts and comments on social media. As a public figure, he has been “called every name in the book,” but decided the best thing to do was not to engage. He also stated that, in his personal opinion, even though everyone is entitled to their opinion as provided by the 1st amendment, it is better for public figures to rise above that.
“I think they ought to conduct themselves professionally,” Morrison said. “I really think that the people who are elected to a position have a little higher code they need to stay with.”
Councilman Harry Thomas stated he only uses his social media for personal reasons. As a rule, he never discusses official business or posts anything negative about other people. He recalled a lesson his parents taught him when he was very young, which is to always “treat people the way I want to be treated.”
In response to public figures posting political or inflammatory comments, he stated that “social media is not a place to talk about a specific public issue” when an individual is representing the public, even when it is on a personal social media platform.
Councilman Lane Carter said he prefers to avoid expressing personal opinion on social media because council members should make sure their statements represent the people in their districts.
“I think everybody, especially city council, are representing their constituents, and they need to be as professional as possible [on social media].”
Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer said in her experience, engaging in social media can have a negative outcome, especially when the person is a public figure. It is better to avoid these interactions and creating unnecessary encounters fueled by the ability to hide behind a keyboard.
“I personally don’t like to respond on social media,” Farmer said. “I do believe that as council members we should conduct ourselves in a professional manner, as if we were on a public forum on social media.”
Councilwoman Lucy Gonzales and Councilman Marty Self were unfortunately unavailable at the time San Angelo LIVE! reached out to them, and Councilman Bill Richardson declined to comment.
Overall, this recent issue calls into question the City's current Code of Ethics the council is asked to abide by. Being adopted in 2008, it may not reflect the ethical standards that apply to social media, which has grown exponentially since the adoption of the code. Wilson stated in an email that currently the city has no plans to modify the contents of the code. However, the Power Point for Social Media training does remain available online for those who need to be reminded of what is and what is not appropriate when engaging in social media.
So, here are some questions for our readers: how should our council members conduct themselves when they are using social media? Is it okay for someone in a public office to express him or herself without a filter simply because an account is deemed “private?"
As technology continues to evolve, it can be hard to gage what belongs on social media and what does not. This is a problem both civilians and individuals in public offices face. As we have learned with recent outcomes of people who have posted comments deemed inappropriate or harmful, posting online can have dire consequences. It can cost people their jobs and livelihoods, and create the threat and/or acts of violence. Also, once posted online, these social media posts can never truly be erased.