Social Media’s Impact on Open Government

HomeCity of AustinSocial Media’s Impact on Open Government

Few government organizations have dealt with how Facebook, Twitter use affects compliance

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

“A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
— James Madison (1751-1836), Bill of Rights author and fourth president of the United States

By far the most lively panel discussion covered by The Austin Bulldog during the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium held March 17 dealt with how social media and trends are affecting governmental organizations and how those organizations comply with open government laws. A standing room crowd witnessed the discussion in the Board and Commission meeting room at City Hall.

Jason King
Jason King

A panel moderated by Jason King, senior attorney and deputy ethics advisor in The University of Texas System’s Office of General Counsel, included the government official in charge of the Texas Attorney General’s Open Records Division and an attorney whose firm represents and advises numerous small Texas cities on matters of open government.

Alan Bojorquez
Alan Bojorquez

Attorney Alan Bojorquez of the Austin-based Bojorquez Law Firm PLLC serves as attorney for 22 general law and home-rule municipalities across the state. He is the author of the Texas Municipal Law and Procedure Manual (5th Edition).

Bojorquez said, “Social media technology is always changing and the law can’t keep up with technology.”

“Public officials are trying to conduct business but don’t know how to do it. The answer should be simple, but it’s not. It’s gray, and has been for many years.”

Having just returned from a Washington, D.C. gathering of the International Municipal Attorneys Association, for which he serves as the Texas Board chairman, Bojorquez said everyone was talking about the issue of social media because none of the states have figured out how to deal with it.

Bojorquez said, “At some point we need to guarantee that our governmental body meetings are not just ceremonial. Those being governed need to be able to view the governing process.” And with respect to social media, he said, “It’s difficult to figure out what the rules are.”

He also noted there are personnel issues involved in terms of how far into an employee’s use of social media a governmental body can go to control what employees are doing during or outside working hours.

Bojorquez said the Texas Open Meetings Act can be violated when elected officials participate in quorum discussions in private, on the phone, via e-mail—and also by using Facebook.

Government agencies need a social media policy

“The biggest thing I recommended for my clients … is if they are going to get into the issue of social media, they should have a basic policy.”

He said that TexasMunicipalLawyers.com (his firm’s website) has a free sample social media policy a city could adopt. (The website also provides access to an article written for the Texas Tech Administrative Law Journal by Bojorquez and Damien Shores, “Government and the Net: Bringing Social Media Into the Light.)

Bojorquez recommends that government agencies establish a policy about what employees could have on their social media pages. “At very least you may want to have disclosure that it’s personal opinion,” he said.

One of his client cities, West Lake Hills, has programmed its servers so that employees cannot get access to Facebook during regular business hours, he said. “They’re very happy with that policy. If employees want to access Facebook during the day they will have to do it through other than city hall.”

Think before posting to social media

“People post ridiculous things they don’t think about,” Bojorquez said. He cited several examples of inappropriate use of social media by government officials:

• A city manager posted on his Facebook page that the city has a racist issue in town and all the perpetrators are people of color.

• A city manager posted that if you believe in gay marriage you must be a Democrat—an item picked up by a Waco newspaper.

• A city secretary posted to Facebook a message to a former city employee that it’s good the employee had left because “the witches are out today.” “She thought the city manager was her ‘friend,’” Bojorquez said.

“I urge my clients to think about it before posting,” Bojorquez said. “If you are going to use (social media) you have to know the rules and play accordingly.”

Bojorquez said that before he was on Facebook he had a young single woman working for him and people were telling him about the racy photos she was posting. “I agonized” over establishing a social media policy and decided it was simple: “Don’t embarrass me—that was my social media policy. And don’t embarrass the public officials that pay us very well.

“I called it my ‘front page of the (Austin American-) Statesman policy.’ If you’re not comfortable putting in on a … billboard on I-35, don’t put it on Facebook. That’s advice I give clients. I challenge them to do that.”

The attorney general’s perspective

Amanda Crawford
Amanda Crawford

Amanda Crawford has been chief of the AG’s Open Records Division since 2008 and an attorney with the AG’s office since 1999.

“The Attorney General’s office is charge with interpreting and enforcing the Texas Public Information Act,” Crawford said. “As far as social media goes, the Public Information Act question is easy: If it’s tweeted or put on Facebook, it’s public.”

She said that more information is being made available everywhere through social media and hand-held devices.

Public employees, like everyone else, are accustomed to texting things back and forth and they’re at work and forget where they are, or forget they have a city device and not a personal device. Or they use personal resources for public business.

“Our interpretation is it’s the content of the communication and not the media through which it’s transmitted,” Crawford said. “If you use a private account to transmit public business, it will be public.”

This was precisely the issue over which The Austin Bulldog sued the mayor, council members, and City of Austin on March 1, 2011, after they had refused to turn over e-mails about city business the elected officials had exchanged on private accounts.

To withhold private e-mails about city business flies in the face of at least four open records opinions issued by the Texas Attorney General, which state that e-mails about government business that were created or received on personal accounts are public records (OR2003-0951, OR2003-1890, OR2005-01126, OR2005-06753) and thus are subject to release under the Texas Public Information Act.

The result of the lawsuit was that the mayor and council members released varying numbers of e-mails from private accounts and then took steps to reform the city’s electronic communications policy, not only for themselves but also for the city’s some 12,000 employees and members of the city’s 55 boards and commissions.

Those e-mails exchanged on private accounts, once obtained, exposed the fact that the mayor and council members were deliberately communicating about major items of public business through back channels. Some of the topics discussed were:

• How to keep a majority of the council members voting in favor of building a new water treatment plant at a cost of $500 million, so the project would not be postponed or halted.

• Why the new water treatment plant was not needed.

• Whether to settle a lawsuit against the city brought by the family of Nathaniel Sanders III, who was shot and killed by a police officer.

• How to coordinate the council members positions so they could achieve a unanimous vote on the 2010 performance evaluation of City Manager Marc Ott.

Moderator quizzes panelists

King noted that city managers don’t typically collect, assemble or maintain information posted on Facebook.

Crawford said the attorney general has an official account on Twitter and also has a personal account. “The reason you would care is that it’s subject to the Texas Public Information Act,” she said. “The Facebook policy may not comply with your government agency requirements. You may need to keep a copy.”

King asked about how open government laws must deal with information stored on cloud servers.

Crawford said the key question is who owns the information when it’s uploaded and how that affects issues such as attorney-client privilege. She suggested reading user agreements for cloud services so the information uploaded does not become the property of whoever operates the servers “and you’re not waiving attorney-client privilege.”

Bojorquez came at the question from a different angle, noting that there have been cases in which cities have prevailed in asserting the attorney-client privilege for information even after it has been leaked to the media. “Only the city council can waive attorney-client privilege. I’ve seldom seen them vote to waive that privilege.”

King asked the panelists, “What advice would you give cities for the Texas Public Information Act regarding social media?”

Crawford suggested that governmental agencies could best use social media to get the word out about information already posted to the agencies’ websites, things that have already been released.

“You can use social media tools to tell people that information is available. That’s a great idea. It promotes transparency and saves yourself work. The more information that’s on your website, the fewer open records requests you get.

“But make sure you maintain records of what you are doing (on social media),” she said.

Want to get the full flavor of this panel discussion? You can watch the 52-minute video on the City of Austin’s Channel 6 video for Open Government: Social Media and Trends.

Coming Wednesday: Litigation Challenges Open Government Laws

This report was made possible by contributions to  The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain  The Austin Bulldog’s coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.

Related Bulldog coverage: This is the 40th story covering the City of Austin’s problems and progress in dealing with open government issues.

City Hosts Open Government Symposium: Lawyers attending for education credits abound, much of the day had little to do with city practices, April 22, 2013

City Spent $157,636 to Defend Council Violations: Payments for private lawyers for mayor, council members in criminal investigation, April 8, 2013

City Hosting Open Government Symposium: Follows county attorney’s investigation of City Council open meetings violations, March 19, 2013

Deferred Prosecution Ends Open Meetings Investigation: Mayor and five current council members sign agreements waiving the statute of limitations and requiring major reforms, October 24, 2012

Austin Board and Commissions Get E-mail Policy: Fifteen months after City Council ordered changes, board and commission members to be assigned city e-mail accounts, August 23, 2012

Open Meetings Investigation a Year Old Today: County attorney says investigation of whether City Council violated Open Meetings Act is still ongoing, January 25, 2012

City of Austin Moving, Slowly, Toward Greater Transparency in Electronic Communication: New system for board and commission members targeted for first quarter 2012, October 27, 2011

Employee E-Communication Policy Drafts Show Each Revision Weakened Rules: Policy that was near fully compliant on first draft crippled by changes, September 13, 2011

The Austin Bulldog Files Second Lawsuit Against City of Austin for Withholding Records: City not responsive to open records request concerning water treatment plant construction, September 1, 2011

City Manager Establishes Policy for Employees’ Electronic Communications: Open government legal experts say policy is seriously flawed, but it’s an important start, August 10, 2011

City of Austin Dragging Its Feet on Implementing Lawful E-mail Practices: City employees, board and commission members still not covered by city policies, July 13, 2011

E-mails Exchanged by Council Members Expose Private Deliberations and Political Maneuvering: More than 2,400 pages of e-mails published here in searchable format, July 6, 2011

Taxpayers Footing Big Bills to Correct City of Austin’s Open Government Issues: $200,000 spent on attorneys so far and no end in sight, June 24, 2011

Treasure Trove of Public Documents Made Available in Searchable Format: E-mails, text messages, meeting notes obtained through open records, lawsuit, May 12, 2011

County Attorney’s Office ‘Cannot Determine’ City of Office Committed Alleged Violations: Bulldog’s complaint was the first presented for violation of the Texas Public Information Act, April 22, 2011

Council Staff Training Lapsed from 2007 Until Lawsuit Filed: Only one current staff member had taken training, city records show, April 20, 2011

Austin City Council Adopts Policy to Improve Compliance with Texas Public Information Act: Policy does not cover all city employees or all city board and commission members, April 15, 2011

City of Austin and Council Members File Answer to The Austin Bulldog’s Lawsuit: Answer challenges standing and claims requests for open records fulfilled, mostly, April 11, 2011

Call for Public Help in Analyzing City Council Members Private E-mails, Text Messages: Volunteers needed to review correspondence and provide feedback on any irregularities, April 9, 2011

City of Austin’s Records Retention Undermined by Lack of Controls Over Deletion of E-mails: Missing records likely more important than gossipy tidbits, April 6, 2011

Council Member Laura Morrison Releases E-mail on City Business from Gmail Account: Morrison second council member to turn over more e-mails responsive to The Austin Bulldog’s requests, March 30, 2011

Private E-mails About City Business May Be Pulled Into City of Austin Records Retention: City Council votes to consider policy draft at council meeting of April 7, March 29, 2011

The Austin Bulldog Files Civil Complaint Against City of Austin and Council Members: Travis County Attorney David Escamilla has legal authority to force compliance, March 23, 2011

Expired: The Austin Bulldog’s Offer to Settle Its Lawsuit with City, Mayor and Council Members: Does this mean these elected officials want to continue to violate state laws?, March 18, 2011

Council Member Spelman’s City E-mails on UT Account Will Not Be Provided: University of Texas will seek opinion from Texas attorney general to withhold, March 18, 2011

The Austin Bulldog Files Lawsuit to Compel Compliance with the Law: Mayor and city council members not in compliance with statutes for public information, records retention, March 2, 2011

Smoking Gun E-mail Shows Council Aide Advocated Evasion of Open Meetings Act: Provided detailed guide to allow chats with council members on dais but leave no trace, March 1, 2011

Council Member Bill Spelman Goes On the Record About Private Meetings, Fifth in a series of recorded question and answer interviews, February 20, 2011

Council Work Sessions Stir Concern Over Tying Up Staff for Two Meetings: City manager presents summary of options for council consideration, February 15, 2011

Mayor Claims Lawyers Okayed Private Meetings But City Won’t Release Proof: City pledges cooperation with county attorney’s inquiry but is withholding these key documents, February 13, 2011

County Attorney Asks City of Austin for Records Related to Open Meetings Complaint: Former Mayor Wynn and Former Council Member McCracken included, February 9, 2011

Council Member Randi Shade Goes On the Record About Private Meetings: Fourth in a Series of recorded question-and-answer interviews, February 9, 2011

City of Austin Commits $159,000 for Advice in County Attorney’s Open Meetings Act Inquiry: Three attorneys hired for $53,000 each, February 7, 2011

Council Member Chris Riley Goes On the Record About Private Meetings: Third in a Series of recorded question-and-answer interviews, February 6, 2011

Council Member Sheryl Cole Goes On the Record About Private Meetings: Second in a Series of recorded question-and-answer interviews, February 3, 2011

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez Goes On the Record About Private Meetings: First in a series of recorded question-and-answer interviews, February 2, 2011

Will I Said Come On Over Baby, Whole Lot of Meetin’ Goin’ On: Council Member Chris Riley tops the chart with 256 private meetings, January 30, 2011

County Attorney Reviewing Complaint, Brian Rodgers Will Not Run for Council, January 25, 2011

Open Meetings, Closed Minds: Private meetings to discuss public business shows Austin City Council may be violating Open Meetings Act, January 25, 2011


Congratulations. It looks like you’re the type of person who reads to the end of articles. Now that you’re informed on this topic we want your feedback.

Related Content

Lawsuit seeks to halt tax dollars for luxury development

A lawsuit filed this morning in state district court seeks a permanent injunction to prevent the City of Austin from diverting an estimated $354...

Council not anxious to publish financial disclosures

City officials’ personal financial disclosures are meant to reveal whether they have substantial conflicts of interest in policy matters that they handle, such as a...

Charter proposal would discourage grassroots democracy

Council Member Ryan Alter has proposed appointing a 2024 Charter Review Commission to study the signature threshold to get something on the ballot by...


Donate to the Bulldog

Our critical accountability journalism wouldn't be possible without the generous donations of hundreds of Austinites. Join them and become a supporter today!