October 23, 2018

County employee social media policy discussion tabled

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MIO — A proposed social media policy for county employees and elected officials has been tabled for discussion at a later date.

The policy was presented at the county’s Sept. 25 regular meeting.

Commissioner LaNita Olsen began the discussion about the social media policy by saying it was drafted by the county’s labor attorney, Gary King. County Clerk Jeri Winton was the first to ask a question in the discussion, wondering who would be subject to the policy. She said she was under the impression that union employees of the county would be subject to the contract of the union prior to any policy of the county. Olsen disagreed with Winton and began reading from an employee contract.

Commissioner Jack Kischnick interrupted Olsen’s reading and said there has not been enough discussion with department heads or other commissioners about the policy, as both he and they have questions about it.

“Right now I think we’ve got too many questions,” Kischnick said. “We need to table this until another time.”

Olsen said she thinks the policy is sound, and that since the policy was written and reviewed by a lawyer it was good enough to pass. Kischnick disagreed, saying anyone enforcing the policy should at least see it before it is passed.

“We don’t have enough input on this,” Kischnick said. “(Table the policy) until we have input from the people who are going to be affected by this, and the people who are going to have to enforce this.”

After a short discussion, Olsen and the rest of the board agreed to table the discussion for another time.

After the meeting Kischnick said to his knowledge the members of the board had access to a copy of the proposed policy before the meeting. Winton said department heads were not provided a copy until after Kischnick raised the issue during the meeting. According to an email Olsen sent out during the commissioners meeting, department heads were given until Sept. 28 to offer their comments on the policy for consideration. After the meeting, board Secretary Brenda Moore sent out a different email giving department heads until Oct. 3 to respond.

There was no concrete reason given at the meeting for why the policy is being pursued. After the meeting, in an email response to the Herald, Olsen said the idea for a social media policy was suggested by the county’s labor attorney. She said he suggested it after she brought an unnamed issue to him that was brought to her attention by an unnamed department head.

Winton said after the meeting that she thinks the policy was pursued in direct response to recent Facebook posts involving county employees or elected officials. Kischnick gave similar reasoning when he said the policy is in direct response to comments made on social media sites in the last six months. Neither Kischnick nor Winton would provide any more information in regard to what specific posts they were referring to. Winton said she thinks “the policy is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Kischnick said after the meeting that while he wasn’t a fan of how department heads were left out of the policy creation process, he is not opposed to the policy itself.

“I think the policy will stand as is,” he said. “I’ve reviewed the union contracts myself and there are no problems that I’ve seen. … (But) I think a few more people taking a look at it would be good.”

According to the policy, its purpose is to prevent employees from discrediting the county or causing a decline in the public confidence of other employees or elected and appointed officials. It says all employees of the county are expected to follow the policy, but elected officials are only encouraged to comply, not required.

The policy says whether an employee posts on a personal website, social media site, blog, journal, chat room or any other form of electronic communication, the content of the post is subject to the policy.

The guidelines paint a broad picture in explaining what is prohibited before listing general rules. Overall, it says any employee’s conduct that adversely affects their job performance or the performance of coworkers, or otherwise adversely affects the public, volunteers, elected officials, contractors, or people who work on behalf of the county or the county’s interests may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.

The policy says employees are not allowed to speak to the media about the county without obtaining permission from the board of commissioners or an unidentified designee. It says any complaints or criticisms of the county or the aforementioned groups of people must be void of statements, pictures or recordings that could be viewed as malicious, obscene, threatening or slanderous. The example given is any post meant to intentionally harm the reputation of an elected official or other employee.

The policy also says that if the county is the subject of an employee’s post, it must clearly state the employee does not speak for the county. It goes as far as to list a preferred disclaimer for employees to use. In another spot the policy says employees shall never post information they know to be false about the county, its officials and employees. How the county would determine when a person knew information to be false is not explained.

All of the infractions listed above are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment. There are no guidelines given for how different infractions would be handled or what type of punishment would be associated with them. Olsen did not respond to questions about how the policy would be enforced. It is not known whether or not the policy would be instituted retroactively.

Although the board is not required to follow the policy, its members are listed as the primary source of information regarding the policy.

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