Burlington finally has a social media policy for city employees, months after bad online behavior ended the careers of two Queen City police chiefs.
Such a policy has been discussed for years, but it wasn't until Monday night that the Burlington City Council came together and unanimously adopted regulations for its employees' internet interactions.
The four-page policy seeks to strike a balance between allowing free speech and protecting the city's image. While workers are permitted "incidental and occasional" social media use at work, they should "use common sense" when posting online, the policy says. Employees must also publish a disclaimer on their personal profiles stating that their posts don't represent the views of the city.
City Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), who helped vet the draft while serving on the council's Human Resources Committee, opened the discussion by referencing the recent social media scandal that led former chief Brandon del Pozo and deputy chief Jan Wright to resign in quick succession.
"This is a well-written policy that many people have been waiting for," Dieng said. "This is a great opportunity ... for protecting the city employees and also making sure that the community has the trust of the people that do great work for them."
The policy prohibits city employees from posting content that harms, insults or degrades others, but it does not explicitly ban them from creating anonymous accounts. That's what got both del Pozo and Wright in trouble. Each used their anonymous accounts to go after critics of the department. Del Pozo resigned in December, and Wright left in February.
Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said the policy should directly address the anonymous account issue, which captured public attention for months. He joined several councilors in urging the Human Resources Committee to revise the policy in the next year.
"I understand that there's other items that could be interpreted as explicitly prohibiting that, but I don't see a reason to not be a little bit more straightforward," he said.
Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) agreed. She noted that the policy only prohibits employees from misrepresenting themselves online if they're trying to influence public policy.
"I just think you shouldn't be able to misrepresent yourself, period," she said. "It seems a little bit too narrow to me."
Despite their misgivings, Hanson and Hightower agreed not to make amendments to the policy during the meeting because it had already been reviewed at length by the city's four bargaining units and city attorneys. Councilors agreed that the Human Resources Committee should review the policy within the next 12 months and update it "as needed."
Calls for a city employee social media policy date to at least 2017, when del Pozo came under fire for using his personal social media accounts to engage with residents and refute their criticisms of the department. Del Pozo frequently spoke against a city social media policy, arguing in police commission meetings that such guidelines would unreasonably curtail his freedom of speech.
The new policy gives department heads greater latitude on social media but warns that they "must consider whether personal thoughts published, even in clearly personal venues, may be misunderstood as expressing the City’s positions."
Employees who violate the policy may be disciplined "up to and including dismissal." The policy also allows the city to investigate complaints about any city staffers' social media behavior.
Burlington joins a handful of other Chittenden County cities and towns that have established social media policies, including Colchester, Milton, Shelburne, Williston and Winooski. Milton adopted its policy in 2012.