Local Agencies Warily Adapting to Social Media

By Anne Lowe

Local governments are slowly adapting to the world of Twitter, Facebook and blogging by starting new social pages for them to interact on with the public.The hyper-paced world of social media, however, makes complying with current law difficult for these agencies to accomplish.

A report in the Los Angeles Times illustrates the difficulties governments are encountering as they venture into the social media arena.

Just a few years ago, municipalities were rushing to get into social media — the talk at conferences was often about which city had started tweeting or joined Facebook. But now, some are beginning to take a more measured look.

In February, California unveiled a Social Media Standard directing that only authorized state employees can use departments' official accounts and that some features, such as instant messaging, should be disabled.

When Orange County began looking into a policy last year, the chief executive's technology office asked other California counties whether they had policies. The overwhelming response was: " 'We don't, but we'd like to see yours when you're finished,' " said Orange County spokesman Howard Sutter.

Just as e-mails can be subject to California's Public Records Act, Facebook status updates, tweets and blog posts can be too, as Orange County's policy repeatedly reminds users.

Webb, Redondo Beach's city attorney, pointed to how San Francisco struggled with this issue — the county began archiving all Facebook posts and comments before finding it prohibitively expensive.

At a League of California Cities conference earlier this year, two presentations illustrated the conflict: one was on the benefits of Facebook, and the other was a blunt reminder that the site falls under the Public Records Act.

Webb had expected that during the conference the league might issue a request to Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown for direction on using social media. That didn't happen, he said, and now cities and counties may have to figure things out on their own.

Like other public information officers around the state, Ted Nguyen of the Orange County Transportation Authority uses Twitter to send out practical, ready-to-use information — in his case, details on bus and Metrolink delays, road detours and freeway construction projects.

Nguyen also spends some of his time giving out information about social media. Several times a day, he is contacted by government agencies from across the country with questions like: Do you need permission to tweet someone's photo?

"I think there's obviously a fear factor, they don't necessarily want to be the first one out the gate," he said. "There is this effort to help each other."

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