(Stock photo)

After nearly a year of effort, the town of Georgia now has a social media policy on the books for municipal employees.

The five-page, 2,000-word document contains seven sections and is the result of at least four to five drafts, the work of two law firms, input from selectboard members and department heads and about $2,000 in attorney fees, town treasurer Amber Baker confirmed.

The policy intends to govern acceptable social media use for full- and part-time employees, it reads, and serve as a guide for elected and appointed officials.

The adoption process began in earnest sometime last summer at the conclusion of a lengthy personnel battle between the town and some fire department members.

Seven firefighters were terminated in 2015 after refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement they deemed overbroad; they appealed to the selectboard, which upheld two dismissals and reinstated five members.

The former sued the town in federal court in July, but this January, they were returned to GFD’s ranks after accepting an offer of judgment that also stipulated the town rescind the confidentiality agreement. The board did that at its Jan. 23 meeting.

At that point, a new social media policy was still in its early stages, as earlier that month, the board directed town administrator Mike McCarthy to share the attorney-penned draft with department heads.

Then, board members expressed frustration with the lengthy and already expensive process of adopting a new policy.

“All we really want to do is to get people to stop posting pictures of accident scenes on Facebook and to not represent the town on social media when they are not supposed to,” Jan. 23 meeting minutes read.

That was the original confidentiality agreement’s goal. Borrowed nearly verbatim from St. Albans Town, the policy applied only to first responders, who are regularly privy to confidential information at emergency scenes.

The policy aimed to regulate the gray areas not covered by statute like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal mandate that safeguards medical information.

The new policy applies to all town employees, not just first responders, and attorneys hope its intent and language are clearer.

Town attorney Joe McLean of Stitzel, Page & Fletcher said the town “consciously” balanced the interests of employees and employer in the new document.

That took time and multiple revisions. On February 13, the board considered finding new counsel after deeming the policy no closer to conclusion. It was unanimously adopted at the next meeting, February 27.

“Given what happened last year, we knew the policies needed some tightening up and some better clarity for both employees and the town,” selectboard vice-chairman Matt Crawford said, noting attorneys are currently reviewing the town’s personnel policy, too.

McLean emphasized the selectboard’s goal to avoid excess “legalese” in the policy, saying “a fair amount of effort went into trying to write it in plain English.”

The result is what McLean hopes is simpler language, despite the complexity of the law it incorporates.

By March 27, the policy was distributed to all departments for review. This time, the board asked employees sign only to acknowledge receipt.

The 14 members of the fire department present at its April 4 meeting did just that, McCarthy confirmed.

“Signing does not constitute that members agree or disagree with the policy, but rather that the new policy has been received,” GFD meeting minutes read. “If you have any complaints, follow the chain of command.”

The library board of trustees considered the policy on April 6, but a new board – with chairwoman Margo Coy the only incumbent and a fifth member not due to arrive until next month – raised concerns with the language and wondered what other libraries were doing with regard to social media.

Meeting minutes echo the firefighters’ former complaints: “Town policy appears to be very broad and infringes on privacy,” they read.

The library board voted unanimously to direct librarian Bridget Stone-Allard to abstain from signing and to research the policy, an action the selectboard expressed some frustration with at its April 10 meeting. Even so, members agreed the library minutes reflected the required proof of receipt.

“But talk about tone deaf,” Crawford said at the meeting.

McCarthy said new trustees are likely unfamiliar with the policy’s embattled history and working through a learning curve. He doesn’t foresee any issues.

The policy’s seven sections attempt to strike a fair balance between employee rights and the town’s responsibility to the public, McLean said, and takes pains to plainly define key terms.

“And we certainly were mindful of the concerns that had been raised by the firefighters,” he added.

“Free speech” and “concerted activity,” two sub-sections of Section II, are familiar terms, then. The policy’s first page asserts employees’ statutory rights but notes they must be weighed against privacy concerns and that not all work matters are “protected communications.”

At its core, the policy prohibits employees from representing the town when acting or posting as private citizens; it also asks them to not use social media at work or post private or town-owned information without explicit consent. Still, there’s some discretion left to management.

“It really becomes an exercise of judgment on the part of the supervisor as to what point has the use of social media by an employee interfered with their ability to perform their job,” McLean explained. “Have we crossed a line and invaded the privacy rights or other rights of third parties?”

That’s addressed, too, as is the original confidentiality agreement’s intent. The policy prohibits employees – specifically first responders – from “posting, releasing or disclosing” confidential information obtained on the job, including protected health information, identity of suspects or victims and personal information contained in emergency reports.

The policy also forbids employees from posting or sharing photos or videos from fire or accident scenes or commenting on related posts without “express advance consent” of their supervisor.

Statewide, more municipalities are adopting similar policies, Vermont League of Cities and Towns executive director Maura Carroll said, though many address media like a municipal Facebook page, something Georgia doesn’t have.

“Here, we were dealing much more with the use of personal devices and personal use of social media in a work environment,” McLean said. “The concern wasn’t, ‘Is someone going to post something improper on the town of Georgia’s website?’ … it was, ‘What can I post on my Facebook page while I’m at work, about my work?’”

A 2014 VLCT survey found of 119 responding municipalities, about 14 percent had some type of social media policy; likely more have adopted them in the three years since, Carroll said.

“Social media has the potential to significantly impact the reputation, goals and public policy interests of the town,” Georgia’s policy expounds. “Those who accept employment by the town accept a position of trust and responsibility.”