I spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Association of Washington Cities annual meeting about the use of Twitter, Facebook and blogging to reach our citizens. It was a great day in Spokane. The overall feedback I got afterward is that a lot of people were thankful for a safe environment to learn about these methods, all of which have a lot of hype and mystique around them.
What got very odd is that four people either from or affiliated with the city of Shoreline warned that these methods could bankrupt a city because of a court ruling involving them. Needless to say, their comments had quite a chilling effect on the discussion. I had to acknowledge their concerns without being familiar with the case.
When I got back to the hotel room, I looked up the court case. It’s pretty amazing. It involved tampering with a public document. If I was involved in a case like that, I sure wouldn’t be showing up at a seminar claiming to know anything about public outreach (Read up a bit on the case at http://www.wasupremecourtblog.com/tags/oneill-v-city-of-shoreline/ and the more thorough http://cforjustice.org/2008/07/22/chasing-the-metadata/ )
The short version is that one of the former council members deleted part of an email before providing it through the public records act. Needless to say, a court did not like this. I don’t blame the court. Tampering with a public document is wrong.
The case does have implications in how cities and public officials archive their documents; some guidelines on that subject are badly needed. How folks from Shoreline reached the conclusion that Facebook, Twitter and blogging were as dangerous as tampering with documents is beyond me. I feel kinda bad that I was not better prepared; I console myself that council members in the room who do research now know a lot more about ways to talk to their constituents. And talking to your constituents is always good.
Update Friday morning: when I wrote the below, I thought speakers were from the city of Shoreline. The mayor of Shoreline, Cindy Ryu, did oppose use of social media, but the leadoff speaker was actually an attorney: Ramsey Ramerman of the law firm Foster Pepper. My apologies to Shoreline council members, who as far as I know don’t tamper with public documents. The tampering was done by someone who is no longer on the council)