- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
By SHERRY GREENFIELD
No new law is being considered to govern the conduct of elected officials and government employees using Facebook or other social media, according to the head of the State Ethics Commission, but one local state lawmaker believes the issue should be studied.
The question arose after a Nov. 28 posting by the Frederick County public information officer on her professional Facebook page promoting the taxicab business of the county Board of Commissioners’ president, Blaine R. Young (R).
Michael W. Lord, the ethics commission’s executive director, said in an interview last week that the state’s current ethics law or “opinion” enacted in 1979, which governs the conduct of all elected officials, including county commissioners or employees, applies to the incident. That law prohibits elected officials or employees from using the prestige of office for their private gain or that of another.
“We don’t have a specific law to use for social media,” Lord said. “The [current law] is twofold. You cannot use your position to benefit others, and you cannot use government resources to benefit a private entity. ... It is a fairly straightforward provision.”
Lord said the ethics commission has received few complaints concerning the use of Facebook by elected officials and government employees.
“We have not been inundated,” he said.
But Del. Galen R. Clagett (D-Frederick) believes addressing Facebook and Twitter in the state ethics laws is long overdue.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Time has passed. We really need laws, and the laws need to be clear on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. If not, we’re going to have one court case after another.”
Clagett admits that enacting state laws addressing social media will not be easy because postings on Facebook and Twitter come and go so quickly.
“It’s very complicated,” he said. “There needs to be guidelines [regulating postings] before they are posted.”
Clagett said he knows of no one in the Maryland General Assembly who has suggested enacting new provisions for social media because Facebook and Twitter are so new to the landscape.
The legislature should appoint someone who is familiar with social media and understands the technology to study the issue, he said.
“I think everybody is scared,” Clagett said. “They don’t know where to take it; we’re in virgin territory.”
On Dec. 4, Young ordered county Public Information Officer Robin Santangelo to remove the Facebook posting after an inquiry by the Independent. Santangelo posted a link Nov. 28 announcing a new application that allows customers to use their cellphone to book a taxi from Frederick’s Yellow Cab, which Young co-owns.
The posting also was linked to Young’s personal Facebook page.
A personal Facebook page is typically for friends and family, and includes postings that depict someone’s private life. A professional Facebook page is reserved for postings and links connected to a person’s job.
Santangelo apologized in an email to Young and removed the link.
When contacted about the link, Young said he was unaware of Santangelo’s posting.
“In my opinion and others, this creates an appearance of conflict of interest. Please remove it immediately,” Young said in an email to Santangelo.
Lord, who declined to comment specifically on the incident, said people often inadvertently post things on Facebook.
“It’s not intentional,” he said. “It’s easier with Facebook to make a mistake. Mistakes happen.”
County Attorney John Mathias said earlier this month that the county’s ethics ordinance, which governs the conduct of a commissioner or employee, also does not specifically address Facebook postings.
The same state law governing the conduct of elected officials and employees applies in the county, he said.
As in the state provision, the only exception to the rule is the promotion by a county commissioner or employee of an event that is intended to highlight the county as a great place to live and work, Mathias said.
Established in 1979, the five-member State Ethics Commission can initiate an investigation or respond to a complaint. Following an investigation, it issues a legally binding advisory opinion.The commission also monitors improper influence on public officials or the appearance of conflict of interest through financial disclosure, lobbying disclosure and complaints that require their investigation.