Facebook changes interaction between the public and its servants

A Facebook search result for Rep. Larry Seaquist
A Facebook search result for Rep. Larry Seaquist's page.
— image credit: Screen capture

The social networking site Facebook has gained tremendous recent popularity in all walks of modern life, with public officials using the site to build a two-way communication channel with their constituents and streamline the government process.

“There is a lot of modern technology we can use in order to get our citizens involved,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor), who uses Facebook as only one way to connect with the public. “It is a way to invite citizens and fellow legislators to become involved in an issue.”

Facebook reports a million user increase each week in the United States, but does not supply numbers by region or occupation.

Anecdotally, the multiple daily invites have increased exponentially in recent months, as people search the system for colleagues and acquaintances. If there is no local tracking data available, there was a noticeable bump this winter during the recent storm activity.

Said one Facebook user, “It seemed like people were looking for ways to stay in touch with each other.”

Local lawmakers like Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola, Central Kitsap Commissioner Josh Brown, Seaquist and Sen. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) have created pages, along with several members of the Port Orchard City Council.

Facebook is a free service, where an individual creates a page that contains pictures, videos, messages, and links.

People are invited to join each network, which gives them access to everything posted.

The circle grows as users widen their contacts to include friends of friends.

Soon enough, “friends” can number in the hundreds.

The default profile requires an invitation exchange, although they can be set for direct Web access.

The service also offers the option of a Facebook-style Web page, which also does not require an invitation.

This leads to questions about public access, and whether an online exchange between public officials constitutes a public meeting or is subject to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Assistant Attorney General Tim Ford said Facebook interaction is generally public, and is protected by free speech.

A public meeting could occur on Facebook some day, but it would need to be properly advertised and meet other requirements of public meeting law.

“Technology is evolving so quickly,” Ford said. “It’s hard to keep up. Whether or not this becomes public record is yet to be determined. But the public meeting act was written in 1971, when none of these things were even conceived.”

Ford does not foresee any legal challenge regarding to Facebook interaction from public officials, even if it is between board members.

“In order for something to go to a court, the plaintiff needs to want to undo something,” he said. “If they don’t take any action then there is nothing to challenge.”

Kitsap County Auditor Walt Washington hasn’t yet figured out how to best use Facebook, but has decided it will provide another channel for him to provide information about his office.

He doesn’t expect it to contain any exclusive information, but will repeat what has been posted in other areas.

“I want to do a newsletter that goes out to the public from the Auditor’s Office,” he said, “and Facebook is just another place to do this.”

Coppola joined Facebook in January as a way to stay in touch with automotive industry colleagues (he writes about cars as a hobby), but it has evolved into a local networking tool.

In February, Kitsap Convention and Visitors Bureau Director of Tourism Development Jean Boyle sent him a note that she was sorry that he would not be attending the KCVB luncheon. He responded with some anger (Facebook posts are usually innocuous) about the agency’s treatment of Port Orchard, which led to a meeting and eventual resolution of the matter.

Port Orchard Police Chief Alan Townsend, who joined Facebook in February, thinks the site has some potential for public interaction, but hasn’t yet determined those limits.

Port Orchard City Councilman Fred Chang agrees, saying, “I haven’t decided how to use my Facebook page, whether it is for my personal life, my job or city business.”

Even as Facebook resides on an undefined information prairie, it is subject to certain rules of conduct.

Seaquist resolves to not push his page into political services and focus instead on public policy.

Even so, he cannot use the site to interact with constituents during the legislative session, since the Legislative Clerk’s office has blocked Facebook from all its networks and the state-owned laptops it supplies to legislators.

“Members can do what they want from their home computers,” said Chief Clerk Bernard Dean. “There are a lot of security issues, along with the amount of time people spend on those sites. We have a lot of interns who frequent those sites, and this distracts them from their work.”

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