GREENWICH – The Board of Selectmen agreed on Thursday that the town should mandate that appointed officials sign a social media code of conduct, but they questioned whether they could require the same of local elected officials.
Referencing past pleas by the board to consider the implications of posting online, Democratic Selectwoman Janet Stone McGuigan suggested that appointed officials should be required to sign an updated employee manual.
“My colleague, Lauren Rabin, has on numerous occasions gently but firmly cautioned our volunteer committee, commission and board members to please think before you post,” Stone McGuigan said.
Because members of town bodies like the Planning and Zoning Commission and Shellfish Commission are appointed by elected officials, the selectmen agreed that it is within the town’s right to require their compliance.
But First Selectman Fred Camillo, a Republican, said he was unsure if the board could require elected officials to do the same.
“If somebody is on the [finance board] or the [school board], they’ve been elected by the people of Greenwich,” Camillo said. “I don’t know if we can compel them to sign something like that.”
Republican Selectwoman Lauren Rabin added that while members of the Board of Selectmen are paid for their work and therefore subject to the employee manual, other elected officials are not compensated.
“I wouldn’t put them in the same category,” Rabin said.
And although Stone Guigan said that her intent was not to discuss a policy for elected officials, in her view the more officials who signed the code of conduct, the better.
“I think it would behoove them to do it as well,” Stone McGuigan said of elected officials. “And the League of Women Voters would point out that an elected official is not a volunteer – you are accountable to the public. So, this is just one more way of showing your accountability.”
In the town’s current code of conduct, town employees are required to “conduct themselves in a professional manner” online, or risk discipline by the town.
“[I]nsubordinate, offensive or inappropriate speech or statements made off-duty which do not concern matters of legitimate public concern but adversely affect the work place or have the potential to adversely affect the workplace may be subject to discipline.”
By town regulation, Greenwich employees and appointed officials may be removed by the person or body that appointed them, but there is reportedly no mechanism for the Board of Selectmen to remove elected officials.
Stone Guigan said the point of the board requiring officials to sign the manual is to “make people think.”
“When someone signs something, then you can’t avoid it,” Stone Guigan said. “You have to think about what you’re doing, and we’re spelling it out very clearly.”
In a Friday phone call with CT Examiner, Stone McGuigan acknowledged that the board could not compel elected officials to sign the code of conduct, but said they should serve as a role model to other town officials and employees regardless.
She said she made the recommendation on Thursday for three key reasons: that it is the start of a new fiscal year, the town is releasing an updated manual, and she’d heard about a few questionable posts by town officials.
She clarified that “by and by large,” there were very few issues with volunteer social media presence. While she did not name any specific instances, she pointed to recent problems with officials’ social media posts.
“I don’t want this to reflect in any way negatively on our great volunteers. But recently – and I am not a social media user, so it’s not like I have firsthand knowledge about what’s been being posted – but it’s come up,” Stone McGuigan said. “It’s just recently come up a couple of times that people have just posted something that I think if they really thought about, they wouldn’t have posted.”
At the end of the board meeting, the members agreed to contact the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to see if other towns have implemented similar social media regulations for elected officials.
“We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel,” Stone McGuigan told CT Examiner. “We should see what other towns are doing.”
Asked for his take on the board discussion, Stephen Meskers – a Democratic state representative and elected member of Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting – said he expects the voters to decide whether his speech is appropriate, not the town.
“We are unpaid representatives of the town,” Meskers said of RTM members. “If our performance or our discourse is that egregious, there’s always the opportunity for a public censure.”
While Meskers said it is solely the public’s job to assess elected official social media conduct, he said recent public discourse has been “appalling” – especially regarding the proposed rebuild of Central Middle School.
“My biggest concern in local discourse is the misrepresentation of facts and figures,” Meskers said. “The town is facing a problem in rebuilding its schools, and people are disputing the figures that are coming in from experts.”
The public discourse about the middle school rebuild kicked off in May, when members of the Republican Town Committee handed out flyers beside the school campus, igniting a series of social media posts.
The flyers handed out by town Republicans on May 18 suggested that town Democrats wanted a “supersized” Central Middle School rebuild. District administration then emailed parents and staff about the flyers, and emailed the RTC and DTC chairs explaining that it is not “healthy or safe” to disrupt town public schools.
Later that week, the RTC – which includes numerous RTM members – took to Twitter to criticize the administration’s response.
Since then, both the RTC and DTC have tweeted about the rebuild. Town Republicans have questioned the competency of a building committee, the school board and school district, and town Democrats have criticized finance board votes on school project funding.
Meskers said social media posts claiming that the district wants to over-fund the middle school rebuild by town Republicans are not offensive, but just “fantasy.”
In a Thursday email to CT Examiner, Republican school board Chair Joe Kelly – who has denounced the public politicization of school matters – said he would agree to abiding by a code of conduct, but cautioned the town against requiring him to do so.
“Those who know me know that if you ask me for the shirt off my back I will likely give it to you,” Kelly wrote. “If you tell me to give you the shirt off my back we will have a problem.”
Similar to Meskers, Kelly said matters of school board conduct were up to Greenwich voters on election day.
“As an elected official I believe I have to do what I think is right and if I get it wrong then I will be held accountable in the next election,” Kelly said.