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County adopts social media policy

Fluvanna County is taking steps to separate the professional and private lives of its employees on social media.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the county’s new social media use policy at its meeting Wednesday afternoon (March 1). The county previously had no such policy.

“It’s really just a basic overview about social media use and separating your work life and your private life as far as social media,” said County Administrator Steve Nichols.

Social media court cases and surrounding law are still relatively new, said Gail Parrish, human resources director, so the policy “wording is going to have to be changed from time to time because this is in flux.”

The policy prohibits employees from using county equipment and facilities during working hours for personal social media use. It also holds employees responsible for what they post on social media sites, saying they “can be held personally liable for commentary that is considered defamatory, obscene, proprietary or libelous by any party.”

County Attorney Fred Payne said that the policy was crafted to prohibit conduct that is already illegal. “We’ve tried to tailor this carefully so that what is not allowed is essentially illegal,” he said. “We limit[ed] the policy basically to what is lawful and unlawful.”

For example, Payne said, “You don’t have a right to exercise your First Amendment rights to act unlawfully. You can’t come in and say, ‘Mr. X is a thief.’ That’s defamatory… If you’re acting unlawfully you’re just not going to have the same protections as if you were acting in a manner that’s unpopular with somebody.”

Nichols said that the policy will not curtail free speech. “The policy is not one that says, ‘Mr. Jones, you work for the county, you’re at home watching TV at night and you post on your Facebook account, “Boy, I think that county budget is too high. I wish we could cut that tax rate.”’ That has nothing to do with this at all. This is about legal and non-legal and using your official position as a county employee to do something contrary to county policy. You can have your own opinion and you can complain and moan and groan and do whatever you want – that’s part of our country.”

The policy states, “Employees are expected to follow the guidelines and policies set forth to provide a clear line between you as the individual and you as the employee of Fluvanna County.”

Parrish clarified the distinction. “If an employee is representing themself as an employee, then we can control what they say in their personal or in our social media,” she said. “If they do not represent themselves in any way as an employee, then we cannot dictate what they say and what they don’t say.”

No one will actively monitor employee social media use, Nichols said in response to a question from Supervisor Mozell Booker. “If something was brought to a supervisor’s attention that they thought might be in violation of the policy, we’d look at it, we’d make a decision, and we’d take appropriate action,” he said. “It might not be any action. We’re not monitoring the social websites of employees… It’s not to be intrusive in their personal business.”

Violation of the policy can result in disciplinary action “up to and including termination.”

Discipline “could be termination, or it could be ‘Hey, don’t do that,’” said Nichols. “Or anything in between.” The severity of the offense will make a difference, said Payne.

Nichols said he took the policy to all the county department heads and constitutional officers for feedback. “I had one comment from one constitutional officer that said, ‘I’m not thrilled with having someone tell me how to handle my employees,’” he said. “There’s nothing here that tells them who’s going to handle the employees. It doesn’t say the county administrator doles out the discipline.”

When Chairman Mike Sheridan asked who would handle discipline, Nichols said it would depend on which level the offense occurred.

The policy prompts employees to be careful with what they say, Payne said. “It’s helpful to remind people for their own good that this is not like lean[ing] over to your dinner companion… This stuff can last in cyberspace for a long time. It’s kind of a reminder to the employees, you have a right to express your opinions, but be circumspect about how you do it because there may be consequences to it.”

Supervisors passed the policy 4-0 (Supervisor Tony O’Brien absent).

In other news, Bill Reed, manager of Dominion Power’s Bremo station, said that Dominion is still in the process of closing the east coal ash pond. Trucks are hauling 10 cubic yards of ash per truckload from the east pond to the north pond, Reed said, at a rate of about 200 truckloads per day. He said he anticipates the project to be finished in about two months.

“The pond will be clean closed eventually,” Reed said. Workers will dig up the earth until what remains has no traces of ash. Then they will fill in the hole with dirt. The final look of the area “will go with the topography,” he said.