Since early May, town leaders in Morristown have been mulling over a policy on how elected town officials and town employees use social media.
The policy is being considered after several problematic incidents in the past few years involving town officials and social media.
Some were reprimanded by the select board, and after Town Meeting Day in March, the town’s unofficial Twitter account was scrubbed clean of nearly all content and put under new management.
On May 6, Town Administrator Dan Lindley gave the select board a draft policy recommended by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, but the board hasn’t discussed the policy since then.
Chris Towne, vice chair of the select board, said if the town wants to reach a larger audience for important notices and upcoming events, it needs to be on social media, and it needs a policy laying out how to go about that.
“Social media, I really think it’s a powerful platform for reaching a large audience in real time,” Towne said. “(But) there haven’t been guidelines in place, as we encourage utilization of various platforms it’s important to have those policies in place.”
Towne said social media is “how people like to be communicated with.”
Board member Judy Bickford tends to agree with Towne.
“I think it should just be used for the town to share information with the community,” Bickford said. “I do think we should have a policy in place.”
She acknowledged that there have been some problems with social media accounts linked to the town.
“We didn’t address this sooner, before anything happened, and now we’re playing catch-up,” Bickford said.
Several town officials have gotten into hot water in the past few years for their social media activity. Meanwhile, some state and national officials have had to be reminded of some of the finer rules of social media.
Last week, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, ruled that President Trump cannot block Americans from reading his Twitter feed and engaging with others within the replies to his tweets.
In Vermont, the American Civil Liberties Union last year persuaded Gov. Phil Scott to unblock some Facebook accounts he had blocked.
In Morristown, the select board put a kibosh on a burgeoning online feud a few years ago between two town officials — Community Development Coordinator Tricia Follert and Zoning and Planning Director Todd Thomas — with the Lamoille County Planning Commission. Former planning council chairman and current town lister Paul Griswold was rebuked last year for using Front Porch Forum to criticize the school district.
The News & Citizen reached out to Griswold, Follert and Thomas about social media use. Follert said the town staff is trying to get the new policy approved and asked that questions be directed to Lindley; Thomas declined to comment and Griswold did not respond to an interview request.
Thomas, in particular, has used his Twitter account to throw shade at county, state and federal officials and at the local media.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development was an occasional target. Thomas said of the agency’s Act 157 Report on Housing and Infrastructure, “I was able to use the Act 157 report paperwork to start my woodstove after snowboarding. So that is a good thing. …”
Last December, he mocked Hyde Park’s guide to the local zoning process, saying, “You shouldn’t need a pamphlet to explain how to get a permit in a rural town. #ZoningGoneWrong.”
The Stowe Reporter and News & Citizen have been frequent targets, too.
Thomas commented on a 2017 award-winning Stowe Reporter story about Stowe police refusing to give out public information, “Hmmm. Perhaps they just don’t think the News Editor provides fair coverage.” That tweet was later deleted.
He was the sole fan of a tweet that called the newspaper a “rag” that “goes directly in recycling” when it arrives in the mail.
The Twitter beef has largely dried up this year, and Thomas changed his bio to make the account more personal.
According to Spoonbill, an application that tracks changes to Twitter users’ mini-biographies, Thomas removed the reference to his job title, “iconoclastic #MorrisvilleVT Planning Director,” on March 9.
Both Thomas and the @MorristownVT Twitter account blocked Tommy Gardner, the news editor for the Stowe Reporter and News & Citizen. The @MorristownVT account also blocked the News & Citizen.
Thomas’s account, despite previously noting his occupation, is a personal account. The @MorristownVT account is a little murkier.
Lindley had said the town doesn’t have an official Twitter account, although numerous town officials reportedly had access to @MorristownVT. At one point, someone changed the account bio to get rid of the town’s web address, adding instead the URL for the nonprofit downtown booster organization, Morrisville Alliance for Commerce and Culture.
After Town Meeting Day, @MorristownVT was scrubbed clean and made the official town Twitter account, with 3,529 followers and one tweet. And neither Gardner nor the News & Citizen is blocked anymore.
Lindley doesn’t think any one incident sparked the need for a social media policy.
“The board wanted a policy,” he said, and now they’re considering one.
The town and social media
The draft policy lays out what social media platforms Morristown would be using in the future: the official town website, Facebook page and Twitter account. Front Porch Forum, where staff members regularly post information as town officials using their town emails, was not listed.
“We’ve never had an official town Twitter account, but we do now,” Lindley said. Just who has access to it is still up in the air, though. Lindley thought Towne did, but Towne said he believes Lindley and his assistant Erica Allen are the only town personnel with access to the @MorristownVT account.
“It’s an evolving sort of thing,” Towne said. “Social media has clearly been widely used for some time, but in an official capacity the town has not done a lot,” other than a few Facebook posts and updates on Front Porch Forum. He thinks much more could be done, particularly around this time of year, when many community events and construction projects are taking place.
A policy laying out how the town uses different platforms to get information out is key before the town begins using social media more, Towne added, and he thinks waiting on expanding Twitter activity until a policy is adopted is a good idea.
Towne said he and other officials briefly considered deleting the @MorristownVT Twitter account completely but deleting an account with several thousand followers seemed like a waste.
“It takes a long time to get that many followers,” Towne said.
It’s clearer who has access to the town’s Facebook account. Allen has the ability to post, along with Town Clerk Sara Haskins and Follert, the community development coordinator, Lindley said.
He said there are no restrictions on which town officials can post on Front Porch Forum, and several town staff members and volunteers post information there regularly.
What’s in a policy?
The goal of Morristown’s social media policy would be to “provide standards and procedures for the appropriate use of municipal” social media accounts and platforms.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns points out that more and more local governments are using social media to provide information about upcoming events, safety hazards, road construction and other things, but there are certain risks.
One risk is violating the public’s First Amendment rights by prohibiting people from posting or commenting, or by blocking them. Another involves comments, where people could post obscene or threatening messages. One option is to disable commenting.
If comments are allowed, someone must be appointed to “moderate, respond to, or manage” public comment.
There’s even the possibility that a social media discussion could be violate Vermont’s open meeting law if, for example, several select board members were all commenting on a specific post.
Towne favors comments; “my personal perspective is that any sort of feedback or comments are helpful.” He acknowledged some people “exercise poor judgment” in their comments, but “we work in the public sector.”
Bickford thinks the comments section of some social media posts can get “crazy” and “I think we want to avoid that.” She’d rather people express their thoughts or opinions at a board meeting.
Regarding open meeting law, the draft policy says elected and appointed officials “should refrain from using municipal social media platforms to discuss” town business, but social media could be used to gather public opinion.
It also states that any employees who violate an approved social media policy will be subject to disciplinary action, which could include termination for staff members or volunteers being removed from their position.
The draft policy also briefly lays out how officials should use their personal social media accounts.
Attempting to limit what someone posts on their own personal account could be construed as a First Amendment violation, but anything posted by a town staff member or elected official is often perceived as coming from the town, even if it’s not.
That’s the argument Griswold made last year, that he has the right to his own opinion.
While Thomas has slowed down his use of Twitter this year, Follert still uses her Twitter account to cheerlead for town development, about local business, recreation and culture. Bill Mapes, Morristown’s new EMS chief, is a prolific Twitter user, with nearly daily Tweets running a wide gamut: politics, science, pop culture and subjects related to his occupation.
Lindley has added a statement to the draft policy stating that municipal officials’ and employees’ personal posts may be “perceived as opinions that could impact their professional duties and the public perception of municipal officials.”
To Towne, one of the biggest concerns about managing town social media accounts centers on the right to free speech. He thinks anyone working or volunteering in government should be conscientious about what they are posting, but he doesn’t want to limit their First Amendment rights.
He does think there should be much more control, and stricter standards, about what is posted via official town accounts.
Bickford also doesn’t want to infringe on free speech rights, but she knows police officers and teachers in other cities who posted something inappropriate on their own personal accounts are being held accountable, and she doesn’t see why the town government in Morristown should be any different.
“We have to take a hard look at what, legally, we can require,” Bickford said. “What we should expect our employees to do.”