Monroeville Council votes to disable comments on municipality's Facebook page
Monroeville council voted unanimously Tuesday to disable commenting on the municipality’s public Facebook page.
The move, which was not part of council’s original agenda for the meeting, was prompted by public reaction to a municipal staff member deleting comments posted by some of the page’s roughly 1,300 followers.
Manager Tim Little said an unnamed IT manager deleted all comments on a Dec. 6 post on the “Municipality of Monroeville” Facebook page because the person found them to be inaccurate.
He said the deleted comments related to the municipality’s post about the recently adopted ordinance establishing a fee to be levied against property owners to fund its Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, or “MS4” program.
The municipality published a disclaimer to its page in 2017 asserting, in part, the municipality can delete comments that contain “information that may compromise public safety or advocate illegal activity; vulgar language; abusive, discriminatory, threatening, harassing, slanderous or embarrassing comments; sexual content or links to sexual content; spam or links to other unapproved sites; and unrelated comments.”
Little said the IT manager usually approaches him before deleting comments that could fall within the confines of the disclaimer, but that person did not do so in this instance.
“If she would have come to me, I would have said, ‘No, don’t delete it,’” he said.
Little did not identify the staffer responsible for deleting the comments because “the IT person doesn’t get paid to deal with what happens in the media.”
“But there isn’t some of kind of hard and fast rule between IT and I that she violated. She has had latitude and discretion to delete comments before,” he said.
Robert Wratcher, the municipality’s solicitor, argued it is not illegal for municipal staff to delete Facebook comments from its public page, though he expects the issue eventually will make its way to the Supreme Court.
At that point, Wratcher suspects the court will decide Facebook comments, if allowed on a public page, cannot be deleted.
“So the question then becomes for the municipality and any public entity with these Facebook pages, whether or not to allow comments. And I think the safe rule would be if you allow comments, you have to allow everybody’s comments,” Wratcher said.
He said exceptions would be made for comments that contain profanity or offensive language.
The municipality maintains a number of social media accounts for different departments, including Facebook and Twitter accounts for the police department and some volunteer fire departments. Council’s vote only disabled comments on the “Municipality of Monroeville” Facebook page, Little said.
As of early Wednesday afternoon, all comments were still allowed on the page.
“Let’s just shut down the comments. Our residents can come up here and talk to us with their comments,” said Deputy Mayor Greg Erosenko at the meeting.
The municipality allows residents to speak on any municipal item for up to five minutes during agenda-setting meetings and after voting meetings.
Resident and former mayoral candidate Chad Stubenbort said disabling comments on the Facebook page does not solve any problems. He was among those whose comments were deleted.
“It does a disservice to constituents who have concerns that cannot go to a meeting to voice their concerns,” Stubenbort said. “(The municipality) has citizens night — it’s timed and they have a gavel. It’s 2018. People can go online. People should be able to respond to elected officials and ask questions.”
The first comment deleted was from Stubenbort. On Dec. 6, he commented on a post about the MS4 fee, asking Councilman Ron Harvey if he “said there wouldn’t be another tax/fee when I asked about this multiple times last year?”
Stubenbort took a picture of his comment to send to a friend. By the next day, a Friday, the comment had been deleted. Stubenbort then began taking pictures of all the comments.
As others commented on the same thread throughout the day Friday, Stubenbort said the comments were being deleted shortly after they posted.
Before council’s vote to disable comments on its Facebook page, Stubenbort said the officials did, at times, engage Facebook users.
“That’s what I think we should be doing,” he said, adding online interaction is more efficient and increases government transparency.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dillonswriting.