Monday, August 23, 2010

Redondo Beach does about face on Facebook

By Kristin S. Agostoni Staff Writer

If you're following Redondo Beach on Facebook, this probably isn't news you'll like.
The city is giving up its page, or at least putting it on hiatus.
Until local leaders are satisfied that the use of the popular social networking website won't leave the city open to legal challenges or violations of open meetings and public records laws, they've ended a pilot project that put Redondo Beach on Facebook about a year ago.
The City Council's decision last week came at the recommendation of City Attorney Mike Webb, who pointed to a handful of potential legal concerns.
Among them are whether Redondo Beach would have to retain user comments under the state's Public Records Act - a task that would likely come with a cost - and how officials would handle erroneous or vulgar posts that could arguably be protected by First Amendment rights.
Furthermore, could a Facebook post attracting comments from three or more council members constitute a violation of the state's open meetings law?
"Social media is inevitable, but we just think from a legal point of view Facebook has too many complications," said Webb, who told the council he believes these and other questions will eventually be answered in court decisions. "I would just prefer that the case law not have city of Redondo Beach in the title."
Council members decided the city still should continue to use other networking sites - such as Twitter, YouTube and the public

safety-oriented Nixle - that don't allow for the same kind of public interface. But by this week, Redondo Beach and Facebook are expected to part ways. Mayor Mike Gin described the move as "a big mistake."
Earlier this year, the mayor started a Facebook page called Save Seaside Lagoon, which kept more than 3,000 followers updated on the pool's precarious position with state water-quality regulators.
"We're an open book. We're supposed to be an open book," he said. "I think we just need to suck it up, and we need to embrace it."
Redondo's reversal comes as cities, police departments and other public agencies are increasingly wading into the social networking arena, even while many recognize there still are lingering questions over government's use of them.
Just last week, the county Department of Beaches and Harbors announced the launch of its Facebook page - part of a new public outreach effort to get the community more involved in events and projects in Marina del Rey, spokeswoman Debbie Talbot said.
But it wasn't made without careful consideration, said Talbot, who recently attended a conference that addressed governments and social networking.
Facebook's free-form communication function raised some red flags in Redondo Beach, where Webb also pointed to potential problems with employee comments that could be deemed offensive in the work environment.
But Talbot said the comment feature is part of Facebook's appeal for the county department, which wants to hear from people who are not regular public meeting attendees.
"We want to identify with people in the community," she said. "We want it to be really a public conversation."
However, the department wouldn't allow offensive comments and profanity on its page, said Dusty Crane, another spokeswoman.
"It isn't our interest not to allow people to have a voice," she said. "But it can't be offensive."
Attorney Michael Overing, who specializes in Internet law and social media and teaches as an adjunct professor at USC, said he believes agencies should use social networking sites, though as a secondary communication source.
"My position is ... I think all of the cities need to embrace new technologies," he said. "It's a great participative democratic opportunity."
While acknowledging Redondo's concerns, Overing said policies could be put into place to address them. For example, cities daily can print comments posted on Facebook so a record is established, he said, and ask elected officials to not respond to comments so as to avoid possible open meetings law violations.
The city of Lomita on its Facebook page provides a link to guidelines that address some of the same issues.
The so-called Social Media Policy says content posted on the page will be sent to a city e-mail account so copies can be maintained consistent with the state's Public Records Act, and that the city reserves the right to restrict or remove posts that violate certain standards.
"It's a fascinating topic because these are all new social media and everybody is trying to figure out how they fit into their lives," said Christi Hogin of the law firm Jenkins & Hogin, which represents Lomita. "You want to be able to figure out how to use it for good but do no evil."
Redondo Beach, meanwhile, will continue to use other social networking sites, and Webb said he has no problem with local leaders creating Facebook pages themselves, such as the one Gin managed on Seaside Lagoon. For the time being, though, the official city page and others created for the Police Department and Beach Cities Transit will be suspended.
"My only recommendation is, let's look at this before we jump wholeheartedly into Facebook," Webb said. "I'm the voice of caution on this."

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