City creates ad-hoc committee to continue social media policy discussion

The process to create a social media policy for the city of Philomath will next week move into a subcommittee established to study the matter before it goes back to the City Council for a work session.

The city’s approach to its social media — which at this time only involves its Facebook page — has been on meeting agendas for the past five months, emerging out of discussions on public participation concerns with online meetings.

It’s been more than a year now since the City Council has met for a full in-person meeting with councilors and city staff sitting behind their nameplates and citizens occupying chairs in the City Hall audience.

The pandemic forced the city to implement a new type of game plan, including how to accommodate public participation at meetings. Since the beginning, the city has utilized the Zoom video conferencing application and over the summer started live-streaming on Facebook.

The general public can watch the meetings live on the city’s Facebook page, or can go back and watch the recording at a later time. Social media responsibilities are currently handled by the city recorder, city manager, police chief and the police department’s administrative secretary.

In November, councilors approved on a 4-3 vote a motion that included the continuation of live-streaming to Facebook but with no chat, a decision connected with concerns involving things like ex-parte contact and public meeting laws. City Attorney Jim Brewer told councilors that they all needed to be operating from the same record with the same information.

The discussion picked up again with the installation of a new City Council in January. A conversation at the council’s Jan. 11 meeting was tabled after several viewpoints had been aired.

City’s Facebook video page
The city of Philomath’s Facebook page displays recent meeting videos that the public can watch. (Screenshot of City of Philomath Facebook page)

Chas Jones, first as a councilor and then as mayor, has stressed the importance of providing opportunities for public participation at meetings. Bringing the council together for an acceptable solution on a social media policy has not been easy.

In January, the city referred the social media policy matter to the city’s Finance and Administration Committee, which reviewed the issue in mid-February. A social media policy that had been drafted by city staff was reviewed. However, Committee Chair David Low said at the March 8 City Council meeting that no specific recommendation came out of the meeting and further discussion on the topic had occurred since.

“I just wanted to clarify when this was first brought to council, at least myself and some other council members were under the assumption that we would all be discussing it,” City Councilor Jessica Andrade said. “I’m unaware of any council discussions that led to the directing of staff to draft a policy.”

Andrade said she appreciated the draft document’s outline but wanted to be able to make further comments. Jones felt it would be appropriate for councilors to have an opportunity to provide written comments with their perspectives and ideas.

“Obviously, this is an incredibly sensitive topic,” City Councilor Ruth Causey said. “I think it was put together hurriedly and I think it warrants extensive discussion.”

That extensive discussion will now occur at the subcommittee level, its creation approved on a 5-2 vote but not without plenty of viewpoints. Councilor Matt Lehman, for example, had offered his opinion on the best next step to take toward the development of a social media policy.

“If each councilor writes down a paragraph about what they want to get out of social media, I think that’s the key here,” he said. “I don’t think that we should spend all of our time trying to figure out which social media platforms to use, which ones not to use, when to use them … let’s just figure out first and foremost, what’s the objective? Is it simply communication with the citizens, (if so) just say that.”

Lehman said he believed it was appropriate for the discussion to go back to the Finance and Administration Committee but he also wanted to see more involved.

“That’s what the work session is for in my opinion.”

Causey, who made the motion to create the ad-hoc committee, said its intent “would be to provide some guidance for the work session, not to come out with a proposed policy. I’m also opposed to the idea of this going to the Finance and Administration Committee. They’ve already taken a stab at it.”

City Councilor Catherine Biscoe supported putting together the subcommittee to help steer conversations.

“I would make the assumption that there would be plenty of opportunities then to take this to a work session and discuss other ideas,” she said.

The motion to create the subcommittee was approved 4-2 with Lehman and City Councilor Teresa Nielson voting nay.

Lehman strongly encouraged city administration to see if Philomath could land an intern from Oregon State University to come in.

“I think researching this type of thing specifically would be something that a grad student or undergraduate student would be more than happy to do,” Lehman said. “We could get a lot of good exposure to the latest and greatest technology that’s out there … take advantage of some resources that are in our backyard.”

Nielson agreed with Lehman’s proposal.

“I think we have a resource that we haven’t quite tapped and I think it would be meaningful,” Nielson said, adding that someone at OSU could “help us with some alternatives on how to meet our purpose in our social media policy.”

City Manager Chris Workman said he could reach out, but added that it might be best to first determine where the city might be headed in terms of future social media uses.

“If the council’s priority is to do a lot more with social media, I think we need to hear that before we go to a consultant or student of some sort to design us a policy,” Workman said. “Because their first question is going to be ‘what are you doing now and what do you want to do? … And then we can design you a policy based on what you want to do.’”

Workman also mentioned various other factors, including costs vs. return, how the new website fits in and whether it’s believed that online engagement will continue after in-person meetings resume.

“There are a lot of unknowns about that and to set a policy that makes those kinds of assumptions is problematic,” Workman said, adding that there had been a sense of urgency that led to social media decisions because of COVID restrictions. “If we’re going to do more and change the policy on what we’re going to do, that’s a discussion we haven’t had yet.”

Lehman felt that a contribution from an OSU student could help alleviate staff time by posting to the city’s Facebook page, but also as a resources for a proposed social media policy research phase.

“I’m not overly concerned that we’re drowning here in a sea of social media and we’re lost,” Lehman said. “I think that if we’re going to implement something formally as a social media policy that it behooves us to put the proper amount of research into it.”

Low shared some of the same concerns that Workman had expressed.

“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “I think the council needs to have a position about what we want for social media, how extensive or non-extensive.”

Workman had said earlier in the meeting before the subcommittee vote that he believed the matter could go to an existing committee.

“It seems like an administrative policy … it would be fitting to stay with the Finance and Administration Committee since that’s what it is,” Workman said. “I don’t know that I see the need for the formation of an ad-hoc committee that’s going to add burden to agendas and staff time and frankly your volunteer time.”

Jones offered his viewpoint in response.

“I think the concern might be that the wrong people are on the Finance and Administration Committee to actually provide this feedback,” Jones said. “I think that’s what I’m sensing.”

Jones, Low and Lehman served on the committee. Volunteering for the ad-hoc committee were Causey, Andrade and Lehman.

The Social Media Ad Hoc Committee is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 31.

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