Winnsboro City Council's use of Social Media prompts controversial policy proposal

Winnsboro City Council's use of Social Media prompts controversial policy proposal
(Source: KLTV News Staff)
(Source: KLTV News Staff)
(Source: KLTV News Staff)
(Source: KLTV News Staff)
(Source: KLTV News Staff)

WINNSBORO, TX (KLTV) - Social media and local government are at the forefront of a special city council meeting in Winnsboro.

The Winnsboro city council called for the special meeting that will happen February 1.

The council is in a spot that is familiar to East Texas elected officials, the intersection of social media, free speech, and the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The Texas Open Meetings law exists to ensure we can keep up with the happenings of our local government. The law is based on the principle that citizens have the right to be informed about and participate in their own governance.

Adopted in 1967, the laws are struggling to keep up with the speed of communication in the era of social media.

The law says a quorum, a majority of the governing body, must be present to discuss official business. Social media provides an environment for discussion, but what are the limits?

Katy Perez, a Winnsboro city council member, communicates with residents through Facebook, so when the city proposed restrictions on the way council members are allowed to communicate online, she was concerned.

"People just want to be able to communicate with their elected officials," says Perez. "They don't want to be shut out on social media because that's where they get their information."

A draft of the proposal states that Winnsboro elected officials cannot write comments on the same social media post or express opinions on city business online. Craig Lindholm, the city's administrator says the purpose of the policy is to prevent a walking quorum, a violation of Texas Open Meetings Act.

"One council member comments on something that's an agenda item on Facebook and then knowingly or unknowingly another council member chimes in several comments down without the first council members knowledge that's a walking quorum," says Lindholm.

The City of Tyler already has a policy in place to prevent an illegal quorum, stating that members of the city council should refrain from participating in social media if other board members are posting.

"If it is found that an elected official violates The Texas Open Meeting Act that elected official is actually open to prosecution for that violation," says Lindholm.

A violation can lead to an arrest, a fine, and up to six months in jail.

Perez says mandatory open meetings training has taught her to refrain from commenting on current agenda items, but she says ignoring residents is unacceptable.

"If someone tags me on Facebook and asks me a question I don't feel right ignoring that question even if I don't have the answer for them," says Perez.

The Texas Attorney General's Office educates council members on the Open Meetings Act.

"I certainly don't think that ignoring constituents is what the intent of the Open Meetings Act was," says Jennie Hoelscher, the Attorney General's Office Division Chief of Opinions. "The basic rule in the act is that generally, you have to have your meetings in the open and accessible to the public."

The opinions division suggests that cities have a message board linked to the city's website so that everyone can have access to it.

In Longview and Lufkin, there are no specific rules in place that regulate a council member's social media conversations.

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