Most Santa Rosa commissioners aren’t using the official Facebook pages –offered to them last year by the county— on which their postings could be monitored and archived as public records.
Although the commissioners unanimously approved a new set of social media oversight guidelines for themselves last August, those rules allow voluntary compliance. Since then, only District 4’s Rob Williamson has stepped forward to begin using his official county Facebook page.
Meanwhile, he’s much more active on his personal Facebook account, on which—among other things—he’s campaigning for re-election next year. That’s supposedly prohibited on the commissioners’ official pages. Still, Williamson uses his county Facebook page to post photos of himself at such events as last weekend’s Rotary “Gumbo Cookoff” in Gulf Breeze.
To be sure, other commissioners are less enthusiastic about their county-created pages. District 2’s Bob Cole said he wasn’t even aware there was one when phoned by a reporter Monday.
“I’m going to call right after this and have it taken down,” said Cole.
Cole hasn’t been active on his personal Facebook page since 2014. “I just don’t do social media anymore,” he told a reporter.
He expressed concern that postings on his official page by the county’s public information office might make it appear that he supports, or is at least knowledgeable about, matters, including public events with which he isn’t even familiar. “I don’t need to be telling people where I am all the time,” said Cole.
The county’s public information office routinely uses the commissioners’ officials pages as essentially bulletin boards— often posting the same announcements on each of them about everything from road closings to the Milton Library’s “Graphic Novel Book Club.”
Personal Facebook pages allow private communication to designated “friends,” which the accounts created by the county don’t. Under the Florida Sunshine Law, public officials are prohibited from privately exchanging thoughts or information that could relate to government matters in which they may become involved.
While County Attorney Roy Andrews rewrote the Santa Rosa social media policy that commissioners adopted, its requirements only apply to county employees—not to elected officials.
As reported by this newspaper in March during the Sunshine Week of 2016, Santa Rosa County’s guidelines and record- keeping practices fall short of the standards recommended by the Florida Bar that have been adopted by some other counties, including Escambia.
For example, Escambia County’s regulations require commissioners to identify opinions they express on personal social media venues as their own, rather than positions being voiced in their elected capacity.
But the Florida public records statute doesn’t distinguish much between officials’ personal social media and posts on their official Facebook pages.
“Posts to a personal social media site such as Facebook as they relate to public business are public records subject to disclosure and retention requirements under Florida’s public records law,”said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. “So if a commissioner is posting about public business on his or her personal Facebook page, then those posts must be retained and access must be provided pursuant to Chapter 119” of the Florida statutes.
Under the law, commissioners are allowed to socialize with one another and they can be Facebook “friends,” Petersen added. The sunshine law, however, prohibits the commissioners from discussing public business except at meetings open and noticed to the public. So, Petersen explained, “if two members of the county commission are Facebook friends, they need to be very careful that they don’t discuss public business regardless of whether that discussion is publicly-viewable comment, or a private conversation on Facebook Messenger.”
Thus the fact that the county created the Facebook pages is neither here nor there when it comes to open government requirements. Petersen asserted,“The law applies equally to private pages as well as personal pages.”
Tough but optional
At first glance Santa Rosa’s new social media rules appear to strengthen oversight. For example, they specify “a third-party archiving system” to “retain public records (including posts, comments, incoming and outgoing messages, videos and photos/ graphics) following the required retention schedule.”
But county Public Information Officer Brandi Whitehurst explained, “Yes, we set up an official page for each district, and each commissioner is welcome to contribute to it and customize it if he so chooses.”
The official district pages are named “Santa Rosa County District One/Two/Three/Four/Five.”
Whitehurst said, “We monitor and archive posts on the official district pages, not commissioners’ personal, business or campaign pages.” She added, “They are certainly welcome to maintain a personal account and post whatever they wish, or a business or campaign page.”
As seen in the Mar. 23 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.