published Monday, October 29th, 2012

East Ridge Facebook use attracts criticism

Tim Gobble
Tim Gobble

EAST RIDGE FACEBOOK POSTS

The East Ridge Facebook page typically is updated multiple times a day and covers a wide array of topics, including events at Camp Jordan Park, photos of well-kept yards and businesses, and animals needing to be adopted at the local shelter. Other recent posts have drawn more controversy:

City Manager Tim Gobble -- posting as the city -- criticized the municipal court clerk and put up an editorial defending his actions in a spat over a court case involving his daughter.

A series of "monologues from Oreo" posted after an East Ridge father asked the council if city code could be changed to allow his children to keep their pet goat.

Photos from Gobble's city-sponsored trips to conferences in Manchester and McMinnville, Tenn., and to Phoenix.

Photos of city staff and councilmen working out in a newly created fitness center for city employees.

The featured photo on East Ridge's government Facebook page Oct. 18 was of a City Hall chair with several ripped cushions.

Below the photo, East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble, posting under the name "City of East Ridge," gave his reasons for posting it: "To prevent further unjustified public criticism of the city for making necessary upgrades, we posted the picture so the public can understand we are not being frivolous with tax dollars as previously alleged."

There had been too much unfair criticism, he wrote, after a previous post of a photo of a white leather sofa recently bought with taxpayer dollars.

"Open transparent government is good and Facebook is an excellent way to communicate facts to citizens and prevent those who like being negative, disruptive and distorting of city actions and spending from doing so. When these types of unfair criticisms of our city stop, we will not feel it is necessary to post such pictures."

The photo and comments are just one example of East Ridge's enthusiastic -- and at times aggressive -- use of Facebook as a way to communicate with residents, promote a positive image and defend city administrative decisions.

East Ridge's Facebook page, which has more than 4,300 "Likes," is updated several times a day and features many items typical of government social media pages: Upbeat announcements, answers to questions about city services and photos of parks and local businesses.

But Gobble, who chiefly administers the page along with seven other staff members, also argues at length with critics and chides people for negativity. Posts that are offensive or "sow discord" are deleted, and repeated antagonists are restricted from commenting.

"I have become a fan of Facebook because it is a way for us to communicate directly and widely with citizens," said Gobble, who noted he has attended several seminars on government use of social media. "It also helps us cut down on the rumor mill by posting actual facts. We can take opportunities to correct erroneous criticism."

Many on the page are quick to "Like" East Ridge's posts and write about how much they appreciate the regular updates and engagement.

But others have complained about restrictions, using terms such as "censorship" and "propaganda."

"If I disagree with something the city is doing, I should be able to voice it," said Mark Brandt, an East Ridge resident who complained at a Sept. 27 meeting about being unfairly blocked from the page. Three others said Gobble was using it to further his own agenda.

At a recent City Council candidate forum, some candidates criticized how much time the city manager devotes to the page. The next day, Gobble defended himself and the page -- on Facebook.

As more local government agencies try to harness the shape-shifting creature that is social media, more questions are raised about how to use it appropriately and legally.

Sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow officials to engage more widely with constituents. But legal experts say there are potential pitfalls involving violations of free speech and public records and public meetings laws.

Other states have drawn up policies and best practices for government use of social media, but it's largely uncharted territory in Tennessee, according to Elisha Hodge, open records counsel in the state comptroller's office.

"As more and more governments start to use social media sites, I think it will become an issue I hear more about," said Hodge.

Some local governments have adopted social media policies. Richard Beeland, spokesman for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, said city staff received some social media training after the city redesigned its website.

"I think the hard part is determining what content is or is not appropriate to post," he said.

Chattanooga has a government Facebook page and pages for different departments, such as Parks and Recreation.

East Ridge's policy is nearly identical to Chattanooga's, except for an addendum about comment deletion. A footnote states that the city reserves the right to "remove without notice" comments that are "abusive, disruptive, potentially libelous" or "are determined to be in conflict with the purpose of this page."

The question of whether administrators should be allowed under free speech and public records laws to delete comments or block users from government sites is not easily answered.

"I would be hesitant to delete anyone's comment unless it was personally demeaning or had vulgar words," Beeland said. "You're treading on some free speech rights I think you need to be very careful with."

Tennessee also has no case law or policy guiding what messages conveyed through social media fall under records retention laws.

Other states have made it clearer. In North Carolina, any government communication through social media -- including posts and users' responses -- is public record and must be managed as such.

Still, Hodge said, social media content that has anything to do with government business is "absolutely" public record. And public records must be retained according to schedules set up by the state.

"We're not talking about a medium," she said. "We're talking about content."

Gobble said he would be willing to change the city's policies if the law required it, but he added that if parameters are too specific, it will take more time to moderate the site.

Mike Dunne, spokesman for Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, said the county doesn't have a formal policy for its Facebook page, which he helps administer.

"Basically, we believe in the opportunity for free expression, but we do not accept spam," Dunne said.

"Our usage of it is still evolving," he said.

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