Springdale policies would address conduct, social media

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Friday, April 25, 2014, 1:26 a.m.

Better behavior is being sought in Springdale government.

Residents attending council meetings in recent months have been aghast at statements made by some borough council members.

They have been scolded by council members for their remarks on social media about borough office staff.

The police chief was brought up on charges when profanity was overheard from his office.

Now, Springdale Council is considering adopting a code of conduct and a social media use policy that appear aimed at addressing those concerns.

Council discussed the proposed policies at its meeting in March.

The borough did not release them to the Valley News Dispatch until this week, more than a month later, after the newspaper appealed the borough's refusal to provide them to the state Office of Open Records.

The proposed code of conduct states it “gives a place to start to build a more professional working atmosphere in the Borough of Springdale.”

If approved, both the code of conduct and social media use policy would apply to council, other elected and appointed officials and borough employees.

The social media policy states it would have to be negotiated into contracts for employees represented by labor unions.

The drafts as they exist are subject to change. Council President David Finley said Borough Manager Kim McAfoose prepared the policies, which were presented as suggestions or starting points for discussion.

“The borough manager mentioned that a lot of municipalities have those in effect,” Finley said. “We should have something to that effect on the books. She got copies of what other municipalities have and drafted something to that effect. They're rather generic.”

McAfoose did not return a call to answer questions about what prompted the policies, or where they draw inspiration.

The proposed code of conduct appears to borrow heavily from elements of British law or government. It incorporates the “Seven Principles of Public Life,” known as the Nolan Principles, which were drafted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, an advisory public body of the United Kingdom's government. The principles are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The code requires disclosure of monetary interests, stated as “disclosure of pecuniary interests.”

The social media policy would establish standards for the use of sites such as Blogger, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Meetup, Flickr, YouTube, Second Life and Wikipedia.

“If you're a public official, you have to watch what you say on social media,” Finley said.

The policy states that it's not intended to govern employees' personal use of social media.

However, borough employees and elected and appointed officials would be expected to comply with all borough policies when using personal social media accounts, including when they're off duty, because such use may reflect on the borough or appear to represent it.

The social media policy would apply to members of the public who comment or interact with the borough through social media websites.

Council could vote on adopting the policies at its May 15 meeting, Finley said.

Release initially opposed

Council first discussed the policies at its March 18 meeting. Both were listed on the public agenda.

The Valley News Dispatch, part of Trib Total Media, filed a “right to know” request with the borough on March 25 to obtain copies of the proposed policies. The borough denied that request in a response dated March 31.

In denying the request, the borough claimed it did not have to reveal the draft policies because they had never been deliberated.

The Valley News appealed the borough's denial to the state Office of Open Records on April 17. The borough emailed the policies to the newspaper on April 22, before the appeal was heard.

The newspaper based its appeal on a 2012 Commonwealth Court decision involving the Philadelphia School District, which found that draft documents cannot be withheld from the public after they have been put on an agenda for a public meeting.

“We're pleased the borough respected our appeal and changed its mind concerning its initial decision, which will benefit everyone involved,” said David Strassburger, an attorney for Trib Total Media. “Every decision in favor of openness is a good decision.”

Finley said Solicitor Craig Alexander first advised council that the policies were not public documents because they had not been approved. Further research found that they are public, so they were released, Finley said.

Alexander said the borough intended to release the policies to the newspaper before it appealed.

“I believed that they were not public documents because even though they were on the agenda for information purposes they were never deliberated upon,” Alexander wrote in an email. “However, it did not seem like something to fight over because they are just proposed policies and there is no harm in releasing them.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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