The Kalispell City Council will take no action in adopting a social media policy as it relates to open meeting laws, after councilors considered amending its existing policy and procedure at a work session on April 12.
The work session was prompted by ongoing council discussions related to a post on Councilor Ryan Hunter’s Facebook page, which received criticism from other city councilors who said it could potentially violate open meeting laws. Other city councilors argued that limiting social media use violates the First Amendment.
The council’s policy and procedure states that “council members meeting together as a quorum outside of a publicly announced meeting may be in jeopardy of violating respective meeting acts. Should the occasion arise, when a quorum is gathered unexpectedly, city business should not be discussed.”
“This issue is not about the First Amendment right,” City Manager Doug Russell said. “It’s about the public deliberative process and how that fits into open meeting laws and the right to participate.”
Officials invited Dan Clark from Montana State University’s Local Government Center and Alan Hulse from the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority to discuss the appropriateness of city officials posting opinions on social media.
“There’s no easy answer,” Hulse said. “There’s no black and white answer when it comes to course and scope issues and it’s going to be very fact specific.”
Some were concerned legal action could occur over public officials’ social media activity in regards to potential violations of open meeting laws. Hulse said this was unclear, but officials should be careful on social media.
“It’s a risk,” Hulse said. “It’s something you really need to consider … When are you serving your own interests outside of the city interests?”
Clark said the use of social media was considered a “squishy environment” for city officials, where norms in city government are difficult to define. He also mentioned that more important council issues are taking a backseat due to councilor disagreements about social media.
“You’re not going to come to a resolution about this because it’s not something you can write about in policy,” Clark said. “Meanwhile, important issues that you are facing like housing, that’s time not spent talking about housing. You can try to fight the battle, but you are taking time away from making an impact on people’s lives.”
While Hunter voiced his concerns and frustrations regarding ongoing disagreements with other city councilors, including his Facebook activity, he said he has made changes to his Facebook page and is “ready to move on.”
“I very much want to get back to the housing discussion,” Hunter said. “That’s where my passion lies, and I want to get back to that and I will be very happy if this is the last we discuss of social media.”
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