Commissioners exempt from Facebook oversight

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.”

Different rules

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.

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