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Potential Maple Ridge social media policy sounds more like censorship

October 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Blog

I am very concerned about a potential social media policy in Maple Ridge that could prevent councillor engagement with the public and instead funnel social media interaction through the District communications department.

I ran my campaign largely on accountability and transparency and have used social media extensively to engage in discussions with the public to keep them informed and to receive their feedback.  The public appreciates this, as do I.  I feel our Maple Ridge local government as a whole can do much more to engage the public.

When first elected, two years ago now, I wanted to list my social media accounts on my business card and wasn’t allowed.  I started a weekly public coffee meeting and was discouraged to continue even after suggesting others could join me and we could make it a Council initiative.

I’ve consistently requested forms of public consultation that have been denied.  I asked to put our Regional Context Statement prominently on our home page for public feedback but was told the link buried in a PDF of the meeting agenda was sufficient.  I put forward a motion to send out a press release about proposed bylaws and changes to Federal Legislation involving medical marijuana when information had changed after it had already been to public hearing.  We were voting with different information than what was available at the time of the public hearing and I was told the press release couldn’t be done because we didn’t want to go outside normal communication policy procedure.  My motion was voted down based on a stated communications policy that at October 21st Workshop meeting I confirmed doesn’t exist.  Why didn’t the Mayor, CAO, or Member of Legislative Services know that there was no such policy?  How is it possible to have a council vote based on policy that doesn’t exist?

Such events prompted me to request a review of our communication policies, including social media. This discussion took place in workshop on October 21. Rather than making our policies more inclusive as was my intention, the discussion was instead turned into ways the District should control social media and the flow of that information.  A current practise in Maple Ridge council is that all emails addressed to Mayor and Council, unless addressed to a specific councillor, be responded to by the Mayor only.  It is being suggested that the social media policy which will now be created for Council would take this further to have all social media go through and be responded to by the District communications department while preventing involvement of individual councillors. District staff are working on the details of such policy, which will be brought back to council in early 2014.

The stated reasoning to have all social media flow through the District includes:

  • “Social media perpetuates issues that should be done with”
  • Only the district opinion should be stated publicly
  • There is a fear of litigation if council is to speak freely and it isn’t an opinion of the District
  • Committee work is our engagement tool as councillors, not social media
  • Information is not safe from corporate data mining unless it is put through the district website
  • Privacy is at risk for citizens engaging in public discussion. If monitored through the district then when discussions between the public get personal they can be directed to take the conversation off line
  • Social media is “misleading” and “disrespectful” and “it’s important to only have the facts (not opinion) out there.”
  • There is worry that the public will misconstrue what an elected official has posted on social media and end up discussing inaccurate information and “there is enough of that happening in the newspapers already”
  • We should “keep the meeting in the room it is actually supposed to be, that is what the public pay us to do”
  • “There’s no benefit to tweeting”
  • “Tweeting is self serving”
  • If elected officials use social media during meetings, they could accidentally tweet during a public hearing resulting in litigation or having to hold another public hearing
  • Social media on business cards gives some councillors an election advantage

The reasoning behind changing the social media flow seems to be full of fear, misunderstanding, and lack of realizing that the world has changed and government in other communities is changing with it.  There’s no evidence of increased risk of litigation in social media over any other medium.  Corporations can mine data from the district website with ease.  Citizens don’t typically engage in public discussion to share opinions they wish to keep private.  Social media is an indication of an entities ability to communicate and monitor their image; if there is misinformation being spread social media should be used as a medium to communicate, discuss and inform through meaningful engagement.

Elected officials are public servants who serve their constituency and the people who voted for them.  I believe our job is to listen to and engage the public and direct the functioning of Municipal Hall to serve the interests of the people.  The public wants to hear and understand our personal opinions – that is why they elected us as individuals.  Elected officials are not employees of the corporation and should not be spoken for by the District.

Social media is a very powerful tool for public engagement and the benefits should be obvious.  In todays day and age, social media policy should govern interactions to safely and effectively make use of social media, not to try to discourage or prevent it from taking place.  After yesterdays meeting it feels like the proposed social media policy would prevent councillors from engaging in public discussion, or in other words, keep us from doing our job to the best of our ability.

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