Thursday, July 29, 2021

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Colusa officials learning the ins and outs of social media

The Colusa City Council has adopted a new policy that provides guidelines for navigating social media – such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – which government officials now use to connect with members of the community.

The guidelines, which were adopted earlier this month, apply to both elected officials and city staff.

City officials said that in light of the city’s continued and expanded use of social media, understanding the policy might prevent the city from being subjected to lawsuits.

“Additionally, the California Legislation recently passed AB 992, which amended the Brown Act regarding the allowed usage of social media for elected officials,” said City Manager Jesse Cain.

The City of Colusa currently has three social media accounts, whose target audience is primarily residents of the city. The city also has a Facebook page and Instagram page for “Discover Colusa” for the purpose of tourism.

All three are managed by Kristy Levings, Colusa communications and tourism director, and are generally posted with Cain’s approval.

City officials said the tone maintained on social media is focused on positive, neutral, kind, and accurate (true) information, although city officials had a few missteps early in their use of social media in exchanges with citizens.

In January, in response to a citizen’s complaint regarding local ambulance services, the City of Colusa replied that Colusa County (Board of Supervisors) made the decision to decrease the number of ambulances from two to one when that decision was actually made by Enloe Medical Center through Sierra-Sacramento Valley EMS Agency.

City officials, also on social media, inaccurately stated that the tourism and communication director, considered a senior staff member, is a grant-funded position when only administrative costs associated with staff time spent on grant administration can be recouped from taxpayer-funded grants that are actually received. Federal and state grants are not typically allowed for salaries, perks, and lifetime health and pension benefits.

City officials, in February, also inaccurately stated, in a video presentation on Facebook, that Prop 68 per capita funds could not be used to rehabilitate features within a park, but rather had to be spent on “a new park attraction,” which essentially blocked the City Council from having an open public discussion at the council level on other possible uses for the money, despite a request from a city council member to do so.

Prior to the adoption of the new social media policy, City Attorney Ryan Jones guided the city council and staff through an ethics workshop, which included a practical application of AB 992, which reduces a “serial meeting” to just two members of a legislative body if they comment on another member’s social media posts regarding any city business.

Comments include using the “like button” and emojis, Jones said.

According to the city’s social media policy, council members are advised to be extremely conscious about the effects a post may have on city staff and city operations. For example, council members were told to be careful about discussions about confidential employment matters.

“The key to conducting the public’s business is trust and in a process, the public can see,” Jones told the council.

The Pioneer Review has been extremely critical of Colusa City Council members’ tendency to discuss city business behind closed doors, whether they are meetings of two members at a time with the city manager or through inadvertent serial meetings, and then only using open City Council meetings to cast a vote with no or little discussion by the council on matters of public business.

Jones addressed that ongoing complaint by this newspaper in the workshop, and the possible violations of the Brown Act on social media by just two people commenting on city business.

“Serial meetings are a concern to me if you talk to a member and that person talks to another member,” Jones said. “You don’t have to actually say, hey Josh, how you going to vote, or hey Daniel, how you going to vote. It could just be ‘what are your thoughts on this?’ That deliberation and discussion is what has to happen in front of the public, not just the final decision.”

As to Facebook and other social media posts, Cain said that any responses from the City going forward to citizen comments will be undertaken with care.

“If the City is posting about a particular business, organization, or campaign, then it is done with prior approval and communication among senior staff,” Cain said.

Cain said that as open meeting laws continue to change, the city guidelines will similarly adapt.

Because social media posts are also public records, the city cautioned members to keep separate social media accounts for public and private use.

Because official government posts, whether accurate or inaccurate, cannot be deleted, the policy advises the council and staff to make every effort to publicly correct any mistake on the same platform.

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