Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Rules for Some, Not All

By Sammi Sontag

Escambia County has social media policies for its employees and commissioners. However, the commission chairman and its newest commissioner have chosen to ignore the policies, rather than propose to amend them.

The breaches in procedures have created a free-for-all where other commissioners are having to spend time at public meetings defending their positions and responding to social media posts.

“I refuse to be censored,” Chairman Doug Underhill told Inweekly. “I will not follow the county’s social media policy. The county doesn’t have authority over how I connect with my constituents.”

Underhill said he uses Facebook to communicate with the “very heavy number of absentee voters in my district.” He explained, “The only way they know what we’re doing is through social media. They know where their commissioner really stands. It gives them the opportunity to engage in the dialog.”

The commission chairman has posted his opinions on such issues as how to balance the county’s budget, FloridaWest’s economic development efforts, raises for deputies requested by Sheriff David Morgan, and the effectiveness of Escambia County Transit Authority.

Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, who was elected in November 2016, has kept an active blog that he created when he was a member of the Escambia County School Board, jeffbergoshblog.blogspot.com. Ten years ago, he got in trouble for posting anonymously on several media websites under the name “Godzilla.” Since then, he has used his name on all his posts.

He believes that state and local government rules have failed to keep pace with the rapid advances in how the public communicates.

“I follow the rules that are acceptable and rational,” he said. “Used properly it is an effective tool. I prefer people know where I stand real time.”

Rules for Commissioners
Social media platforms have created direct lines of communication between governments and their constituents, and in Escambia County, that holds true. The county developed its social media policy in 2009 when several commissioners began posting their political positions on media websites.

Escambia County Attorney Alison Rogers saw the potential for violations of the Florida Sunshine Law that prohibits the commissioners from communicating with each other about items on their agenda outside of an advertised public meeting.

At her urging, the Board of County Commissioners approved the policy that states, “Commissioners shall not discuss County business on social networking sites, including, but not limited to, Facebook and Twitter, and shall not blog or otherwise communicate on the Internet about County business.”

However, the policy does not prohibit commissioners from commenting or reacting to posts on other people’s social media or media sites. The policy states, “A commissioner may post a story, forum, comment or response on a blog or site maintained by another person or media outlet regarding County business so long as the commissioner posts the comment or response using his or her actual name.”

Rogers admitted that social media has expanded over the past eight years. The extensive use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat and other media wasn’t contemplated. The policy needs to be updated soon.

“We’ve never gotten to the point of amending it. It’s not keeping up with reality. It made a lot of sense at the time,” said Rogers. She added that there is no legal violation if commissioners don’t follow the policy.

Rules for Employees
However, county employees risk their jobs if they violate the county’s social media policy. In 2012, the Board of County Commissioners approved an expansion of its social media policy that provided rules for employees concerning personal social media, how it should be used, and who has access to run the County’s social media pages.

The policy includes monitoring staff usage of social media and encouraging them to keep their personal profiles professional and positively represent their agency.

Joy Tsubooka, Escambia County’s community and media relations manager, urges county employees to tastefully represent their agencies on personal pages and to make sure the county’s official pages share positive news stories.

“We are really careful to cover public record laws in Escambia County,” she said. “We are hesitant to fully embrace social media because there aren’t strict laws yet, but we make sure to follow the ones we have now.”

The policy states, “County employees utilizing social media for personal use must clearly state that their comments represent their own views and opinions and are not necessarily the views and opinions of the County.”

It continues “Employees are personally responsible for the content they publish on blogs, social media networking sites or any other form of user-generated content in conformance with the Human Resource Procedures, Ethics and Standards of Conduct.”

The Escambia County Social Media Policy also outlined the proper use of the county’s social networking pages. The Public Information Office and the Information Technology Department, not the individual commissioners, run the official Escambia County BCC social media accounts. Other authorized users may access official BCC social media sites or accounts if necessary.

If any of these rules are violated, or constituents complain about misconduct, the county can research its employees’ social media profiles and use that information to implement disciplinary actions, according to the county attorney.

Blessing or Curse
Neither Underhill nor Bergosh appeared to be worried about their choices to ignore the county policies.

For Underhill, Facebook and other social media are keys to holding office and accountability. He said all elected officials should be employing those tools, too.

“Social media is the world we live in,” Underhill said. “If you don’t use it, you will be replaced by someone who does communicate that way.”

The commission chairman also argued that social media benefits the government by making elected officials more transparent.

“You can’t do things in backrooms and not be called out anymore,” he said. “It’s changing the way we do business forever.”

Under the Florida Sunshine Law, the commissioner doing the “calling out” has a distinct advantage since the other commissioners can’t respond on the same website if the point of contention is an item coming before the BCC, such as FloridaWest, ECAT or roundabouts on Pensacola Beach.

Both Commissioners Lumon May and Steven Barry have disputed in commission meetings some of the information Underhill has posted about them on Facebook.

While not pleased with the “calling out,” Bergosh sees it as a free speech issue.

“There have been times Commissioner Underhill has said disparaging things about me,” he said. “He has the right to do it. He’s exercising his free speech.”

-Duwayne Escobedo contributed to this story.