Saline City Council voted 4-3 to adopt a new electronic communications policy that has been months in the making.
The policy discussion was hatched when city council decided it should have a new policy to guide behavior on new laptop computers the city will provide councillors. What the city received was a wide-ranging electronics policy that applies from everyone from city employees, to members of city commissions to members of Saline City Council.
What rankled the feathers of some council members is language that appears to infringe on a council member’s right to use their own devices to communicate on social media about issues that will come before Saline City Council.
The policy affecting council members starts by saying that they are “generally free” and encouraged to communicate with the public about city matters, several cautions were issued. One straight forward caution is that council members should clarify their opinions are personal opinions and not city policy.
But another element of the policy is a little more difficult to follow. It instructs councillors to avoid using social media to communicate about matters where the council will exercise “quasi-judicial authority,” or where council’s decision will be based solely on information part of the legal record, or where council is dealing with a confidential matter.
Immediately below the section on council’s electronics policy is the enforcement section, which states that authorized users who violate the policy shall be subject to discipline, including termination and/or removal from office.
The language that caught the attention of Councillor Janet Dillon, who voted against the policy along with Councillors Dean Girbach and Christen Mitchell.
“I’m still not in favor of this. I don’t like the language. I don’t feel as though this policy should warrant that level of discipline. It’s so open-ended and can be interpreted a lot of ways,” Dillon said. “I don’t want to be removed from office because of something I post on Facebook.”
Councillor Mitchell, who has questioned the policy for months, voiced her agreement.
Nobody spoke in favor of the policy.
When the vote was called, Mayor Brian Marl and Councillors Linda TerHaar, Jack Ceo and Heidi McClelland voted in favor of the motion.
After the meeting Mayor Marl was asked to explain his support for the policy.
“We’re splitting hairs. This is hardly the most profound public policy decision this board made tonight or will make in the future,” Marl said. “People are free to communicate robustly with the people they represent.”
After a previous meeting Marl was asked out a policy on use of the new laptop computers became a policy governing what city council members could communicate on their own phones and computers. Marl said the city’s attorney presented the city with a policy in line with what many cities have adopted.
Council previously adopted an ethics policy which, among other things, advises council members not to share information with the public and to turn over questions and concerns to city government staff.
The ethics policy, signed by all seven members of council at the time, requires the following of councillors.
- City Council Members will respect the confidentiality of information concerning personnel, property or affairs of the city.
- Council members should neither use nor disclose to any unauthorized person confidential, privileged or proprietary information gained in the course of their duties. This is any information, or written, which is known to Council Members only because of their position within the City, and is not a matter of public record.
- Council members, if approached directly by City employees with operational concerns and issues, should immediately refer the employees first to their supervisors, and then to the City Manager as needed.