Social media use by elected officials has become a hot-button topic due to concerns over possible violations of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws.
“Social media is a good place to get information out,” said Delaware County Prosecutor Carol O’Brien. “The best thing to do is make sure it’s not running into the Sunshine Laws.”
Mike DeWine, Ohio Attorney General, states in the introduction of the Sunshine Laws 2017 Manual, “… Ohio’s Public Records Law and Open Meetings Law … are known as the ‘Ohio Sunshine Laws.’”
O’Brien said social media policies are the best way to help avoid violation of the Sunshine Laws.
“If a township uses social media, it needs to have policies and procedures in place,” she said.
Many elected officials, like President Donald Trump, have social media accounts to communicate with the public.
Liberty Township Trustee Shyra Eichhorn stated in an email, “It is no secret social media has been one of my strongest ways of communicating with the residents, keeping a finger on the pulse of the community, and being able to answer questions.”
However, if elected officials of public boards or a body engage together on social media, they could be in violation of the Open Meetings Act, which applies if members of a public body meet to discuss the public’s business.
The Ohio Revised Code defines a meeting as a prearranged gathering of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of discussing public business.
Recently, the topic was addressed by the Ohio Township Association at its winter conference by attorneys Benjamin Yoder of Frost, Brown, Todd, LLC; and Margaret Comey of Locke Lord LLP.
In their presentation, “Social Media and the First Amendment,” they discussed the best practices for elected officials to maintain personal sites.
The two attorneys addressed the Open Meetings Act, stating elected officials should avoid discussions around “township business with each other on social media.” The attorneys also advised that elected officials should avoid discussing the public business of the township altogether.
Cathy Buehrer, Liberty Township’s human resource manager, said she was recently asked about the township’s social media policy by one of the trustees. She reviewed the OTA Winter Conference presentation and consulted with Chris Betts, Delaware County assistant prosecutor, for advice on the matter.
In an email to all three Liberty Township trustees, Buehrer wrote, “(Betts) advised that public officials, trustees, do not become members of these types of forums as the temptation (and) ability to participate in chats which would be a violation of the … sunshine law(s),” she said in her email. “If a trustee posts something regarding township business on their personal site and other trustees have access to post on that Facebook site, then the potential for violation of the law is there.”
“As long as the comments (or) chats are about non-township related business, there is no violation,” Buehrer also stated in her email to the trustees. “So, bottom line and per legal counsel, trustees should not comment about township business on social media sites, and it is recommended that trustees remove themselves from these types of sites or, at the very least, do not comment on any issues that may be considered township business.”
In December, Orange Township Trustee Lisa Knapp was confronted by residents with accusations that she had blocked them from her personal Facebook page.
One of the residents, Patrick Grubbe, said his concern was about the censoring of public comments. He said if the policy is to limit public comment, then all mediums should operate in identical ways.
“Dialogue with citizens is extremely important,” Grubbe said. “When you block comments and when you block people, you’re censoring your citizens.”
According to Orange Township Administrator Lee Bodnar, there is only one official township Facebook page, and the current social media policy only governs that page, but it does not govern any of the trustee pages.
Larry Crile, mayor of the Village of Ostrander, has run into problems with getting information out to the public because the villages has to follow the rules set by the Ohio Revised Code. He said Facebook is not bound by the rules of the Ohio Revised Code like the village is as a government entity.
“If you get information from some of the social medias, sometimes it’s not the information we … put out in the public record …,” he said.
Crile said due to the back and forth of comments, the original message becomes distorted.
“How do we come up with a way to reach people that choose to get their information through social media?” he asked.