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Social media controversy has town examining policies

Posted on May 18, 2016 by Taber Times

By Trevor Busch
Taber Times

In the wake of a firestorm of controversy surrounding a town manager’s social media comment regarding the Fort McMurray wildfire, the Town of Taber is now reviewing its social media policies.

At their May 9 regular meeting, town council voted unanimously (6-0) to direct administration to revisit the Town of Taber’s code of conduct, professionalism, and social media policies, to be brought back to council for the June 27 regular meeting. Coun. Jack Brewin was absent from the meeting.

“In light of all the poor publicity over all this information, and what social media’s response is to a code of ethics and professionalism for town employees, I think probably as a council we need to address it,” said Coun. Joe Strojwas, who went on to argue that council take the lead role in the review. “I believe we need to form a committee with a couple of councillors, the administrative services manager (Kerry Van Ham) and union steward — sit down and take a look at all of those policies, make some revisions, perhaps update them.”

Controversy erupted earlier this month when Tom Moffatt, the Town of Taber’s Information Technology Manager, and a former Lethbridge NDP candidate, took to the social media airwaves on his private Twitter account to post: “Karmic #climatechange fire burns CDN oilsands city.” The tweet was later deleted but it was screen captured and shared widely across the Internet, prompting a negative public relations backlash for Moffatt, the Town of Taber, and the provincial NDP. Moffatt is currently a Lethbridge resident and does not reside in Taber.

The town’s IT manager has since been suspended in a special decision by town council on May 6, pending the outcome of an investigation into his comment. The decision has since attracted national media attention, although council has been tight-lipped, providing no official statement nor offering any insight into the actions taken by the town.

“Maybe the committee needs to have a look at them and say that they maybe need to decide on a yearly basis to refresh people’s minds about what they should and shouldn’t be doing, what can affect a community like this,” continued Strojwas on May 9. “A backlash over something that happened is certainly detrimental for any community, and it’s unfortunate that it’s happened to ours, but I think even just as council, members of the public, employees, we need to be aware of social media, because right now on social media anything you put on can be damaging. Anything you put on your Facebook page or tweet, it’s captured forever. I think it’s just time for this council to take a step and refresh those policies and take a look at them.”

While Coun. Strojwas was in favour of a small group of councillors and representatives of administration handling any proposed review of social media policies, other members of council were not so sure.

“Should we not include the human resources manager (Barkley Busch), rather than perhaps the administrative services manager?” questioned Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux. “Because he is the one that deals with employees, and conduct.”

Strojwas appeared to suggest that limiting input into any review — except by a small group of councillors and administration — would prevent the review from becoming “too big and onerous”.

“The whole thing, we don’t want to make the committee too big and onerous, getting too much input from different people. It still has to come back to council, and of course it will have to go to human resources and everything after that.”

CAO Greg Birch pointed out that at the time of the social media backlash experienced by the town over Moffatt’s comment, administration was already engaged in a review of the town’s social media policies.

“Meghan Brennan is our communications officer, and she’s actually working on — and has been for a while — re-vamping our communications policy. So she’s actually been exploring some drafts and re-working that. So your administration was already undertaking this. She has some expertise on the communications side of that.”

Limiting discussion and review to a small committee could potentially exclude the views and opinions of other councillors, suggested Coun. Rick Popadynetz.

“Well I think Meghan (Brennan), our social media person, is definitely someone that needs to be involved, and our hr manager (Barkley Busch) as well. Because they’re the two that have to deal with backlash all the time. It seems like we’re getting more and more committees, and more and more councillor’s time taken up. I don’t mind it, but if we’re going to do this, let’s maybe make it all of council so we can make an informed decision and not exclude any councillors, by any means. It should be all of council, administration we should trust to have them come up with something and bring it back to us.”

Coun. Randy Sparks agreed the policy should be reviewed by administration and brought back to council for approval, rather than handled by a small committee of councillors and administration.

“I believe this should have been handed over to administration. We have people in place in administration that can deal with this, and bring it back to council for council to look at, and approve or disapprove, or additions or deletions. Because we have members of administration and others who are in place in positions that can certainly do a much better job on this than a couple of councillors can do. I think a policy should be coming from our administration people, and then council makes a decision. That’s what we have an administration for — I’m not an expert in this, but I certainly can read it and make suggestions after. I believe this is circumventing the process that should be in place already.”

Mayor Henk DeVlieger was also onside with the process suggested by Councillors Popadynetz and Sparks.

“If I listen to Mr. Birch (CAO), the process is already going. Let administration come up with a draft, and we can review and discuss it, and go from there. I know our time is very precious, but it sounds like administration is already partly on the way to doing this.”

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