On August 1, 2014, Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law was amended to guide the use of social media by elected officials:
The use of social media by members of a public body does not violate this chapter so long as the social media use is limited to exchanges with all members of the general public. For purposes of this section, e-mail is not considered a type of social media.
As a consultant who specializes in online citizen engagement, I was excited to see this change. It has seemed to me that elected public officials in Minnesota have been generally reluctant to participate in online public policy-oriented discussions out of fear that a violation of the open meeting could occur.
But a closer reading of the new statute raised some questions in my mind. A July 21 article about the new law in the Faribault Daily News titled Elected officials and the use of social media included this:
Reporter Brad Phenow: “Come Aug. 1, elected officials can use social media without the fear of violating the law, so long as the use is viewable by members of the general public.”
The reporter’s use of the word ‘viewable’ seemed wrong to me, that the statute’s emphasis on “exchanges with all members of the general public” indicated that interaction was a required component.
But I still was left wondering how those ‘exchanges’ would have to be structured. For example, could I host a week-long blog/Facebook discussion in which the first couple of days were devoted to interaction among city council members, followed by several more days of interaction between council members and the public? Could I moderate a live one-hour web conference, Google Hangout, or Twitter exchange that featured 15 minutes of discussion among the members of a school board, followed by 45 minutes of Q&A with the public?
The IPAD staff indicated that they believed the statute’s use of the phrase “limited to” was key, that the intent is to not allow exchanges among a local unit of government’s elected officials but only between the elected officials and the public. They indicated that this was a result of negotiations between the Minnesota Association of Townships Association and the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
A May 2 article in the Rochester Post Bulletin titled Quam’s social media bill faces stiff opposition describes the disagreement prior to the bill’s passage:
This session, the Minnesota Township Association and the Minnesota Newspaper Association worked to craft compromise language that would have only allowed public officials to interact with the general public on social media and not each other. But that proposal ran into stiff opposition in the Minnesota House last week. Members on both sides of the aisle said they fear this bill will hurt the public’s ability to know what their elected officials are doing.
… He [Mark Anfinson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Newspaper Association] said the big problem with the earlier bill’s language is it does not specifically limit public officials to interacting with the general public, leading to the possibility that they could be interacting with each other online.
At a basic level, this indicates to me that a local elected official can now engage in discussions with their constituents on their public Facebook page timeline, the comment threads on their blog, or their Twitter feed. If one or more elected officials from that same elected body joined these discussions, they would have to be careful to address their comments only to the public.
Likewise, it indicates to me that special online events involving a local unit of government’s elected officials must be structured in a way that prevents (discourages? minimizes?) those members from interacting with each other. For example, a live web conference could use a Q&A format where a moderator and citizens submit questions to elected officials who then respond back directly to them. A moderator’s task would be to intervene if the elected officials tried to interact with each other.
I can imagine a scenario in which the elected officials talk about one another. For example, Councilor Jones might say/write, “I think Councilor Smith is sadly mistaken on that point because…” followed by Councilor Smith responding with “What Councilor Jones doesn’t seem to realize is that…” It could also be done in support of one another, eg, “Councilor Smith’s rationale makes perfect sense to me.”
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Would that type of exchange be a violation of the statute? I don’t know but my inclination as a moderator would be to intervene and ask the elected officials to refrain from using each other’s names.
So I’m glad to see this change to the statute and I’m eager to work with local units of government to put it to use for the benefit of citizens and their elected officials.