The Internet: It’s a place of information, entertainment and, for friends and family, a way to stay in touch via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat.
It’s also a potential minefield for elected officials as they navigate what to share or not to share on Facebook and other social media websites.
Most elected officials who spoke to The Olympian for this story said they avoid discussing city business online or engaging in conversations with other council members about city business online — both potential violations of the Open Public Meetings Act.
But if online postings are not about city business, how should elected officials conduct themselves on the Internet?
Lacey City Councilman Jason Hearn, who ran unopposed and won a third term on the council in November, has waded into the debate about elected official decorum online after he commented on a friend’s Facebook page about U.S. politics.
On Nov. 15, at various times during the day, Hearn joined the conversation and posted the following comments:
▪ (President Barack) Obama is Muslim or at least an avid Muslim sympathizer.
▪ Remember 15 percent of Muslims are radical with violent intentions. That’s a lot.
▪ Obama is a Muslim sympathizer before he’s an American.
A reader noticed Hearn’s comments and forwarded them to The Olympian. That person declined to identify themselves, but added the following comment: “Doesn’t seem like an appropriate comment for a council member. Would love to hear from the other six members.”
Hearn said he doesn’t discuss city business online, but he does acknowledge sharing his political and spiritual views, as well as jokes.
“When I do Facebook, I’m sending it out to the friends in my network,” Hearn said. “I enjoy the debate and dialogue very much.”
Hearn said he does not comment on Facebook with the intention of hurting or offending people. He said he is thinking of the friends in his network when he makes those posts.
“If someone is offended by my comments, they should reach out to me,” Hearn said.
He also said that when he’s using his personal Facebook page, he’s doing so as a private citizen, not as a public official.
“I don’t believe my personal Facebook page is city business,” he said.
In a follow-up conversation, Hearn took issue with The Olympian’s use of the statements he made on Facebook, saying they were not public statements and were taken out of context. He also called the paper’s reporting irresponsible.
“This is not a City Council meeting and it’s not a City Council email or telephone call,” he said. “This is not part of my public life and you’re making it so.”
He also said he thought his comments on Facebook would remain private.
Although most Lacey City Council members have personal Facebook pages, the world of Facebook is new to the city: It launched its first official Facebook page in December. And rules governing social media for the council are still to be determined, according to the city’s policies and procedures manual.
“Policies and procedures for the use of social media, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc., by council members are under review by the Public Affairs department,” the social media section reads.
Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder disavowed Hearn’s comments and said they do not represent the views of the city. He also acknowledged that he gets complaints about Hearn’s Facebook page — it skews to the conservative side of the political spectrum — but said it’s Hearn’s personal page.
He said if Hearn discussed city business on his personal Facebook page, he would intervene.
“I care about all of my council members and I wish them the best,” Ryder said. “But we all have to remember that everyone is watching and our words do matter. They really do.”
“I don’t share any of those opinions,” said Councilman Jeff Gadman after learning what Hearn had posted online.
Gadman said his role as a council member is to represent all of Lacey.
“I’m not picking and choosing,” he said. “I’m trying to make the city better for everyone because it’s not just conservatives and it’s not just liberals.”
Gadman said his social media rules are essentially the same as when he’s out in public: He’s subject to public scrutiny. “I have to make sure how I comment and what I comment on is something people won’t mind reading,” he said.
“That is so painful,” Deputy Mayor Cynthia Pratt said in response to Hearn’s Facebook comments. “I’m sorry he thinks that. I don’t even have a response to that.”
But she said that as long as he doesn’t comment about city policy, he is free to say whatever he wants.
“That is his right to do, but it’s unfortunate,” she said.
Tumwater and Olympia don’t have specific social media policies for their councils, but they do conduct orientations for new council members that discuss what it means to be a public official in the age of the Internet.
“We talk about a new world where everyone is watching you,” Tumwater City Administrator John Doan said about the conversation he has with new council members.
He offered this example for elected officials: whether to post a photo on Facebook where they are in a bathing suit, downing their fifth margarita.
“You might want to think about that,” he said.
Olympia staff have a similar conversation with new council members, said Kellie Purce Braseth, a spokeswoman for the city.
“We make sure they understand that they are elected officials 24/7,” she said. “They need to separate their personal life from their public life, especially in terms of technology, whether it’s email, phones or social media.
“They are public officials now,” she said.
Lacey, too, has a procedure in place for new council members, said Sandy Boyce of the city’s public affairs department.
“They receive a copy of the City Council policies-procedure manual, they meet with department directors soon after taking office and they are encouraged to attend the Association of Washington Cities elected officials essentials workshop,” she said.
Boyce added that every current council member, including Hearn, has attended the workshop.
Washington Coalition for Open Government president Toby Nixon, who also is a city of Kirkland councilman, helped develop the city’s social media policy, he said. Each time a council member wants to post something online, they can either make clear that it is their opinion and not the council’s position, or provide a link to the City Council’s social media disclaimer.
“The disclaimer ensures the view expressed in the comment is that of the member; not of the full council,” the disclaimer reads.
Of course, outside of any obvious Open Public Meetings Act violation, public officials are free to say whatever they want online, said Nixon. He cited U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump as an example of people who don’t self censor.
“Maybe it’s just who he is and he doesn’t care,” said Nixon about Hearn. “Some are just that way.”
But be prepared for the ramifications, he said.
“How are people going to take this? Would I want my opponent to have this information?” Nixon said.
A LESSON LEARNED
This isn’t the first time that a Lacey city councilman has invited controversy on Facebook.
Michael Steadman, a first-term councilman, found himself embroiled on Facebook after he appeared to be willing to support putting the city’s plastic bag ban before voters if the ballot measure was paid for with private money and not city money.
Justin Kover, a member of the group willing to raise and pay for the ballot measure, said he had reached that agreement with Steadman on Facebook. Steadman ultimately voted to uphold the plastic bag ban, which remains in effect today.
Lacey Mayor Ryder said he warned Steadman not to talk about city business on Facebook.
“I believe he made an honest mistake,” Ryder said.
Steadman said he thought he could use Facebook as a way to come across as a more transparent council member, but that was naive on his part.
“It’s kind of an unspoken rule that you need to be careful online,” Steadman said.