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Councillors to retain right to voice opinions on social media

posted 5 Sept 2019, 02:56 by Christel Mex
At the September meeting, I moved a successful motion to review the social media policy to ensure that elected members retain the right to voice their opinions on social media.  I was also successful in amending the Civic Recognition Policy to give community groups the same level of recognition as long-serving elected members and local businesses. 

Here is what I said about the social media policy:

This motions simply aims to reconsider the social-media policy adopted on the 5thof August, and I envisage only very minor adjustments are needed.  

The reason for reconsidering the policy is to take account of the differences between the roles of staff and elected council members and to give effect to those differences.

The staff comment does not address this proposition. It does no more than re-assert the foundation of the policy put up and accepted last month, namely that since Councillors and staff are all public officers within the meaning of the relevant South Australian statutes, there can be a one-size-fits-all social-media policy. That is, so far as social-media policy is concerned, that their responsibilities are indistinguishable.

This is simply wrong – and not just in relation to social media policy. Can it really be suggested that all of the rules which properly apply to the most recently appointed, most junior, clerical assistant, must also apply to a Mayor, or the Commissioner of Police, or a Parliamentarian? – Just because all of them are public officers? Of course not.

The difference between staff members and elected members is easily seen when we think about the sentence in the policy to which I drew attention in my reasons for the motion:

“Avoid expressing personal opinions in relation to Council decisions or Council business, and do not make disparaging or critical comments in relation to Council decisions or Council business” (page 4).

Suppose the Council makes a decision with which a Councillor disagrees. 

Of course, we would expect staff members to do their job and faithfully implement the decision without comment.

But suppose that a councillor takes to social media and writes this: “I disagree with the Council decision which voted in favour of reducing library funding and closing one of our libraries. I think their expressed reasons for doing are not in the best interest of our community.” (I can see many of us feeling this way).

Here we have a personal opinion in relation to a Council decision. We also have critical comments in relation to that decision.

Here’s another real example. The Mayor recently criticised the Council decision to fund a new piano. Although he may not have posted this on social media, it was posted on The Advertiser’s electronic media page, which would indeed fall under this policy, as it is (and I quote from the policy), a “website which allows individuals to use publishing tools emerging from the digital environment”. In any case, why would we have a different policy for social media, than print or radio? 

A councillor is allowed go around the streets and the shopping centres and disagree with a Council decision. A councillor may also leaflet the ward with this message. A Councillor can also speak to the print media and radio about it. Is it seriously suggested that a councillor may not also voice their opinion on social media as long as they make it clear it is a personal opinion? Yet that is the inescapable meaning of that clause in the policy. 

The staff comment on this motion ends by saying it is not the intent to gag elected members; but I stress it is not the intent that matters, it is the actual effect.

All that may need to change in this policy, at minimum, is to insert the same note that acknowledges that private views are allowed, as the policy does so in the following clause. 

Elected members are not members of a Cabinet whose members are all bound to support majority decisions of that Cabinet. They are much more like Parliamentarians. In fact, some say we are both the Government and the Opposition.

Apart from necessary confidentiality, and the already existing Conflict of Interest provisions, Councillors are, and should be, free to debate and discuss matters of relevance for those they represent. 

I emphasise that I am not asking for major changes, and although they are small, they are vital to ensure that our councillors are not muzzled. The policy is pretty good, but it won’t take much to make it right and more clear. In quoting Winston Churchill, “To improve is to change”.