Durham County

The Durham City Council has a new social media policy. But you can still weigh in.

Durham Mayor William V. "Bill" Bell
Durham Mayor William V. "Bill" Bell

Until Monday night, city leaders had no social media policy. Now they do, but it’s likely to change Thursday when they take it up again.

So if you want to tell them what you think, now’s the time.

The City Council spent a half-hour going back and forth over what lines to change and whether to vote at all. It started with member Charlie Reece asking to send the policy back to the procedures committee, where it was this summer. Reece wanted more public input.

Mayor Bill Bell said they should just pass what they have and change it later if need be. Then Reece proposed changes to parts of sentences and sections, prompting member Steve Schewel to ask that they delay any vote.

The policy discussion comes a month after a social media-fueled anti-white supremacist protest Aug. 18 in downtown Durham five days after protestors brought down a Confederate statue on Main Street.

Council member Jillian Johnson’s tweets about white supremacist sightings were questioned, and after the counterprotest Bell said there needed to be conversation about social media.

“I’m trying to get a document in place to change. We have nothing,” Bell said Monday night. “Right now we don’t have anything.”

Bell, Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, member Eddie Davis and member Don Moffitt all voted yes, with Reece, Johnson and Schewel voting no, so it passed 4-3. But what they voted yes to do was to approve a policy they planned to discuss and potentially change less than 72 hours later, when they meet at 1 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. Schewel will not be there, as he will be observing Rosh Hashanah.

A policy has been on the city’s radar since early summer, spurred by a question from the city’s Human Relations Commission. In March, council members were getting emails about how other cities use social media. The city’s social media policy for employees and departments was updated this summer and spurred the new policy.

The city’s new social media policy prohibits officials from using social media in a way that violates the law, including campaigning for re-election on professional social media accounts. Unless designated, officials may not represent themselves as spokespersons for any aspect of city government.

Council-appointd boards, committees and commisions are covered under the new policy, too. Members can all still use personal accounts, too, but their free speech right “is not absolute when involving matters of official city business, issues or concerns,” according to the policy passed Monday night.

Council members Johnson and Reece are the most active on social media. Both Johnson and Reece have started new Twitter accounts in the past month just for city matters, and still maintain personal Twitter accounts as well. On Facebook, Reece is using his council member page to do Facebook Lives to go over the council work sessions. His Facebook Live, which is live video on Facebook you can also watch later, has 761 views as of Monday. He’ll do it again on Sept. 20 to go over the Sept. 21 work session agenda.

Johnson has about 2,000 followers on her Facebook council member page. Sometimes she’ll reach constituents by referring from one social media to another, with a tweet linking to a longer Facebook post.

Reece has more than 4,000 followers on his personal Twitter account, and about 200 on his council Twitter account he started tweeting from less than a month ago. On both accounts now, Reece is arguably the most prolific tweeter about all things Durham several times a day, with a pinned tweet that’s a photo of him taking the oath of office in December 2015.

Mayor Bill Bell does not use social media, nor does Cole-McFadden or Davis. Moffitt does some, and Schewel has upped his social media presence during the mayoral campaign, with candidate Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Candidates have their own social media accounts, too, like Facebook campaign pages for Pierce Freelon, Farad Ali, Shea Ramirez, John Rooks Jr. and LeVon Barnes.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

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