In a series of emails between Orange Township officials and a Delaware County assistant prosecutor, a request for research into how public officials’ social media accounts can impact a municipality was withdrawn this past week.
During the Dec. 4, 2017 trustee meeting, Trustee Lisa Knapp was confronted by residents with accusations of her blocking them from her Facebook account. The account is currently titled “Residents for Lisa Knapp, Orange Township Trustee.”
Residents at the meeting questioned the board of trustees about the township’s policies regarding how public officials used, titled, and were held accountable for their social media accounts.
Township Administrator Lee Bodnar said at that meeting, there is only one official township Facebook page and the township’s social media policy only governs that page. He said the policy does not govern any of the trustees’ accounts, which are their own private accounts and have nothing to do with the township.
However, there are many cases in courts across the country addressing the issue of how public officials use their private social media accounts and if they should be subject to open records laws — commonly known as sunshine laws.
Assistant Prosecutor Mark Fowler was in attendance at the meeting and asked to research the subject in the interest of protecting the township. Following up on the request, Bodnar sent an email to Fowler.
“Hello Mr. Fowler: Are you still researching the use of Facebook by public entities, and also the impact (if any) of how a public official chooses to title their Facebook page? Please let me know — Thank you sir!” Bodnar wrote in the email.
In a second email, Bodnar wrote back to Fowler. “Mr. Fowler: Trustees Knapp and (Ryan) Rivers have asked that I withdraw my request noted in the email … ,” he wrote.
The Gazette has made a public records request to Orange Township for all text and emails to, from, and between Lee Bodnar, Mark Fowler, Trustee Lisa Knapp, Trustee Ryan Rivers, Trustee Debbie Taranto that are dated Jan. 2 through Jan. 4 concerning Mr. Fowler’s research into the use of Facebook by public entities.
The emails obtained for this article were provided by Taranto. She said she was not copied on all the emails concerning the issue and the request being withdrawn.
“I was really shocked and I didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “I was left off the original email. I was pretty shocked that two trustees made a decision outside of a meeting.”
According to the Ohio Sunshine Laws Manual of 2017, pages 92 and 93, “the Open Meetings Act requires members of a public body to take official action, conduct deliberations, and discuss the public business in an open meeting, unless the subject matter is specifically exempted by law.”
The manual further states, “The Act defines a “meeting” as: (1) a prearranged gathering of (2) a majority of the members of a public body (3) for the purpose of discussing public business.”
Trustee Ryan Rivers, who admits he is in his first week of his term as a trustee, said, “some emails went back and forth” and the matter of social media research “was brought up and briefly touched on.” He also stated that there had not been any decision made concerning dropping the research being conducted by Fowler.
Both Knapp and Rivers said they did not discuss the matter in any way outside of a public meeting. Both also said neither of them told Bodnar to withdraw the request.
“Lee made a mistake in sending the email to Fowler,” Knapp stated in a text message to The Gazette. “There was nothing official or finalized by the Board at the December meeting requesting (Fowler’s) assistance on this matter. Behind the scenes, Taranto asked Lee to check on it, falsely claiming we had agreed to do so.”
“Now that’s illegal,” Knapp added. “She has no authority to act on behalf of the Board (and) that’s malfeasance.”
Taranto said, “I believe it was a consensus” of the board of trustees at the Dec. 4 meeting to pursue the research.
Former Trustee Rob Quigley, who was serving as chair of the board, conducted the Dec. 4 meeting.
“I saw that there was a concern from the public and I know at least one other trustee had a concern,” he told The Gazette in a text message. “As chair, it was probably me” that made the request to Fowler for the research.
“Irregardless, the public raised a concern and they are now ignoring it,” he continued. “It’s being irresponsible as an elected official to ignore. I really don’t understand how they can run on transparency or claim to be transparent and not take this seriously.”
The next Orange Township board of trustees meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 15 at the township hall, 1680 E. Orange Road, Lewis Center. To view meeting minutes and agendas, go to orangetwp.org.
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.