A former Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service spokesman violated the county policy by tweeting Bible verses and continuing to use his Twitter account in a way that appeared to be on the county’s behalf after he left the county in January.
As a result, former Assistant Chief Scott Graham has been asked to change his Twitter name, @MCFirePIO, so that people won’t think he’s acting in an official county capacity, according to county government spokesman Patrick Lacefield.
“The things he was tweeting were in violation of the county’s social media policy,” Lacefield said.
When Graham was serving as a public information officer for the county’s fire and rescue association, he routinely used the @MCFirePIO Twitter handle to interact with reporters, posting photos and public safety-related updates in 140-character bursts. Public information officers are responsible for responding to press inquiries and occasionally act as spokespeople for the departments or organizations where they work. The @MCFirePIO account had more than 1,800 followers and more than 880 tweets, including at least 20 church-related posts — Bible verses, links to church sermons, and quotes from ministers — tweeted during and after his time as a county public information officer.
The county’s policy prohibits official social media account administrators from broadcasting personal beliefs and states that content posted to these sites “must be consistent with the mission of county government and the mission of the department on whose behalf the post is made,” according to a copy of the policy obtained by The Gazette.
Graham contends that he didn’t do anything wrong.
“This is a First Amendment thing,” Graham said.
Graham served MCFRS for more than 25 years and was described by colleagues as a “great guy” with a “distinguished career.” Graham helped craft what became the Emergency Medical Transportation Insurance Reimbursement Act, which charges insurers for emergency medical transport. He’s a volunteer firefighter in the Upcounty.
Graham said that he created the @MCFirePIO feed as a personal account because he saw the need for one and said he didn’t think it was in appropriate to use a personal account for county business.
“It’s not a county account and it never has been,” Graham said.
Since Graham left the county on Jan. 31, at least three tweets related to weather and traffic incidents were posted to the account.
“A lot of people I work with have to travel those roads and nobody else had put anything out,” Graham said.
Graham said he didn’t think choosing “@MCFirePIO” as a name for his private account would lead people to think it were official. The bio on the account, whose first tweet was posted in 2011, now states that he is a retired from MCFRS and works for Holy Cross Hospital. The photo on the account depicts him in what appeared to be an MCFRS uniform.
“It’s not regulated anywhere on Twitter,” Graham said. “I can choose whatever name I want.”
The church related tweets, Graham said, were posted by accident. He said a mobile app inadvertently posted to his @MCFirePIO account when had only meant for it to post to his Facebook page.
“I wasn’t proselytizing on the MCFRS feed,” Graham said.
The county’s policy defines social media as an umbrella term encompassing the technologies and programs the county uses to make content publicly available online and to interact with the public. The Office of Public Information sets guidelines for social media use and is required under the social media policy to keep a list of all of the county’s social media sites.
The @MCFirePIO Twitter handle was not on that list.
The county’s social media policy does not appear to specifically address the use of private accounts for official government business. But Lacefield said broader county policies limit how and when employees can act in an a way that appears to represent the government — rules that extend to social media, even private accounts.
“The song is still the same,” Lacefield said.
Lacefield said individual departments were responsible for tailoring the county’s policy to best meet their department’s needs.
Fire Chief Steve Lohr said Graham’s tweets were “inappropriate.”
Graham said he’s not tweeting from the account anymore.
“You’re about three months late and a dollar short because I no longer use it [the account],” Graham said.
As of Monday afternoon, the @MCFirePIO was still active, though its most recent post was an April 1 retweet from the current fire and rescue association spokesman Pete Piringer’s feed @mcfrsPIO, a tweet on the fire at Gables Upper Rock.