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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Councilors consider rules for their own online activity

Who can post to official site, how to treat the public are at issue

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter
Published: January 22, 2016, 8:52pm

The Clark County council took early steps Friday toward significant changes in the way councilors communicate with and share information with the public.

At its annual retreat Friday, a relatively civil county council considered a broad range of issues, including its code of ethics, its rules of practice and how it holds public comment sessions. But over the course of the nearly six-hour work session, two topics prompted heated conversation: how to post documents to The Grid, the council’s hub for meeting materials, and the council’s social media policy.

Debate over how to post material to The Grid first began earlier this month, when Republican Councilor David Madore tried at a council meeting to give a presentation he called the “Actual Revenue Situation Report” in defense of keeping the 2 percent property tax levy cut the council approved in December.

Madore was challenging county budget staff, who said a 2 percent tax reduction, or even no changes to the tax levy, could continue to force the county to dip into its reserve funds and eventually bankrupt the county. Madore, however, maintained that the county budget was strong and could sustain a property tax cut due to increasing sales tax revenue.

But before giving his presentation, Madore learned from county staff that the overhead projector wasn’t working and wasn’t able to show his material. The council later overturned the tax cut.

Councilors Julie Olson and Jeanne Stewart, and Chair Marc Boldt, all Republicans, told Madore at a later board time meeting that he couldn’t post the material on The Grid because it wouldn’t be clear which presentation, staff or his, contained the correct information.

“I don’t think it should be a free-for-all,” Olson said at the retreat.

Boldt said he feared allowing councilors to add their own material to The Grid would cause dispute among them prior to public meetings.

“Debate will begin before debate begins,” he said.

Madore, however, said not posting documents from councilors would be effectively silencing the minority voice.

“We’re somehow saying, ‘We rule and you can’t have a voice and we do not welcome dissent,’ ” Madore said. “I’m thinking, ‘No, no, no.’ If that’s the way government works, it’s not a really healthy government at all.”

The council ultimately decided to allow Madore’s presentation online, but decided to return to the issue to make a formal decision on how to approach The Grid later.

Dealing with the public

Another unresolved issue was a county social media policy.

Though all five councilors have social media accounts, there’s no question that Madore is the most prolific user of both Facebook and Twitter. Madore has come under scrutiny for both deleting comments and banning people from commenting on his posts, including Columbian reporters.

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But currently, councilors’ Facebook pages are not subject to public records requests, said Deputy Prosecutor Chris Horne. Horne cited a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision that ruled text messages created on Pierce County Proscutor Mark Lindquist’s private phone are public records if they’re about public business.

“Our office would like the county to consider, if there’s going to be a Facebook page in which you communicate directly with the public about matters of public concern, that they’re done on some kind of a server that the county controls so that we can preserve and protect that material,” Horne said.

There also remain questions about how councilors behave on Facebook. Olson said she’d like the council to use the same ethical principles when talking to people on social media as in council meetings.

“I think we owe it to ourselves to operate in that matter, especially on social media,” she said.

“I don’t think any of us have been disrespectful to our constituents or anybody else,” said Republican Councilor Tom Mielke.

“I might not agree with that, actually,” Olson responded.

Though the council didn’t set a social media policy, Horne said, “this issue is not going to go away.”

Columbian Education Reporter