Local jurisdictions are required to archive public records in compliance with the Public Records Act (PRA), but with social media blurring the line between what is personal and what is for work, it could be difficult to ascertain whether a council member's post or comment should be considered a public record.
Tumwater City Administrator John Doan and Communications Manager Ann Cook briefed the city council on Tuesday, May 23, to clarify what counts as a public record when council members create content for social media.
Doan explained that they are required to archive certain social media posts as a public record so they can store information on what a council member has said about a particular issue or ordinance. What counts as a public record can get confusing as council members are allowed to have personal accounts and pages to promote their candidacy.
Doan suggested having city-sponsored Facebook pages for the council members, which would have been monitored by city staff so that every post was a public record, but none of them favored the idea.
Some council members were not even on Facebook to begin with.
As some council members use social media, Cook gave them guidelines so that their posts do not constitute public records.
Cook discussed a 2018 case, West v. City of Puyallup, in which Olympia resident Arthur West filed a PRA action against Puyallup for not disclosing the posts of a now-deleted Facebook page called “Friends of Julie Door,” which was owned by a Puyallup City council member.
The trial court found that the council member’s posts on Facebook did not constitute public records. The State Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, believing that the posts were not public records as they were made outside the scope of the Door’s capacity as a council member. In her posts, Door either shared content from the city website or publicly available information.
Based on this case, Cook clarified that disseminating publicly available information does not call for a public record. The case would be different if a council member was posting information that they would only know because of their position.
Social media content would also require a public record if a council member starts engaging in council matters. To avoid doing so, especially in scenarios when people ask about council matters, Cook recommended that council members to refer people to city resources instead of answering questions personally.
Council members are also not allowed to comment or share pages from other council members. Doan explained that this would help avoid serial meetings or series of informal communication between members of a body.
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