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Wausau tweaks social media policy for elected officials

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By Shereen Siewert

Members of the city’s human resources committee this week will discuss two proposed social media policies that establish guidelines and best practices for employees and elected officials.

But the consequences for elected officials who violate the proposed rules is murky.

In an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, City Attorney Anne Jacobson confirmed that while employees can be disciplined for failing to follow the rules elected officials are not subject to discipline by city staff.

In October, a social media committee initially proposed a single policy to cover both employees and elected officials. After a period of public comment a number of changes were made to the proposed new rules and a separate policy was drafted for elected officials. Both policies aim to protect the integrity of information posted and content attributed to the city and city officials, but splitting the policies into two takes into account the differences between employees, who can be fired, and elected officials, who can not.

“Elected officials representing the City of Wausau on social media sites must act responsibly in the posting of material and in their online demeanor,” a draft of the policy states. “Elected officials must respond honestly to appropriate queries and should not become hostile or argumentative. They should always exercise good judgment regarding the content and potential need for confidentiality (omitting addresses, phone numbers, and other personal data) of posted information. Elected officials representing the City must refrain from using social media tools to express personal opinions or concerns. They may never use their access as City representatives to social media sites for personal gain or to promote endeavors of relatives, friends, or associates.

During the October human resources meeting, Jacobson recommended a social media coordinator be appointed to oversee all city pages. She also recommended the city purchase software to archive social media for efficient handling of open records requests.

The initial policy discussion followed an August incident in which a city employee removed a comment from the city’s official Facebook page, a move that stirred a debate over whether such action is ethical and legal.

In August, Kathi Groeschel, executive assistant to Mayor Rob Mielke, told Wausau Pilot and Review that she removed the comment, a response to employment listings, because the words were “clearly off topic and/or disruptive.” Groecshel said the city has a policy about the city Facebook page that states that the city reserves the right to delete such submissions. A social media policy could not be found on the city’s Facebook page immediately after the comment was removed, but has since been added.

The content of the removed post was not released, but legal advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union have repeatedly taken a stance and, in some cases, legal action on the behalf of people who have been censored or blocked from posting comments on Facebook pages operated by government entities.

Courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — have weighed in the issue in recent years, increasingly in favor of free speech on government websites.

The new policy includes language that addresses comment removal and requires any content being removed to be retained internally, “including the time, date, identity of the poster, identity of the staff who removed it, and the reason for the removal. A good faith effort will be made to contact the person with the removed comment and notify him/her of the removal, if possible,” the draft proposal reads.

The human resources committee meets at 4:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. Read the full proposal here beginning on page 21.

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