Town employee use of social media sites such as Facebook has become a topic of discussion for the Searsport Board of Selectmen, and has raised questions about free speech versus a need for employees to remain publicly neutral on hot local topics.

The issue was raised during the board’s regular meeting Tuesday night, April 3, when Town Manager James Gillway presented selectmen with a proposed amendment to the town’s existing policy regarding town employee use of email and computer documents. The amendment, which Gillway said was about six pages in length, largely addresses employee use of social media sites like Facebook.

Gillway said he consulted with Maine Municipal Association about language used in the proposed amendment, as well as some of the changes he is proposing to the existing Internet use policy.

One issue the proposed amendments address, said Gillway, is the need to preserve any postings that appear on a Facebook page that is created for use by town employees.

“We should be keeping all of those postings that appear on our social media sites,” Gillway said, referring to Maine laws governing public freedom of access to municipal records.

Roland LaReau suggested the town move toward having a social media supervisor who could help make sure all town employees are up to speed on the policy changes.

LaReau also stated that since Tuesday was the first time selectmen saw the proposed policy changes, it may be wise to set a time to discuss the matter further before considering the document for approval.

“We haven’t really had time to absorb it,” he said.

Board Chairman Aaron Fethke agreed with LaReau and suggested tabling the item and discussing it at a board workshop already scheduled for April 19.

“It’s an important issue and we should workshop it,” he said.

Gillway noted the workshop falls two days after the next board meeting, which is scheduled for April 17. The next regular scheduled selectmen’s meeting is not until May 1. The annual training sessions for town employees will be coming up soon, Gillway said, and he expressed hope that the policy would be updated by that time.

“I hate to delay it, but I’d like to hear Doug [Norman’s] input,” said Fethke, adding that Norman was unable to attend the board meeting Tuesday.

LaReau said in the meantime, it may be a good idea to let municipal employees know that a change in the policy is being actively considered.

“We should make people aware that it’s protocol now,” he said.

Gillway said copies of the draft proposed policy are available at the town office.

When speaking after the meeting, Gillway confirmed the policy change is being considered, in part, because of an incident involving Facebook postings that were authored by the town’s Fire Chief Jim Dittmeier.

In December, Dittmeier took heat for a Nov. 16 post that appeared on Searsport Fire Department’s Facebook page that offered his personal thoughts about the ongoing debate surrounding the development proposal from Colorado-based DCP Midstream to construct a 22.7-million-gallon LPG tank at Mack Point.

The post, which no longer appears on the SFD-run Facebook page, encouraged the “silent majority” of people in town who support the potential development to share their views with town selectmen. He further stated the development could bring jobs for young people and provide more tax dollars for the town, according to previously published reports.

Dittmeier also described local opponents of the development as “a few people that just want the town to stay this way and die.” In closing, Dittmeier suggested, “maybe we should have a sign that says ‘Searsport, Town of Complainers who are against everything,'” reports at the time quoted.

Fanning the flames of the debate was the fact that Dittmeier also submitted a letter to the editor that ran in the Dec. 1 issue of the VillageSoup Journal, in which he reiterated his position. In that letter, Dittmeier specified he was expressing his opinion as a taxpayer and not as the town’s fire chief.

When Dittmeier spoke with The Journal about the issue at that time, he expressed frustration that despite the large public protests put on by the local opposition group known as Thanks But No Tank, there were many project supporters in town whose voices were not being heard.

In a related discussion that fell under correspondence, LaReau called attention to “a number of letters” the board received from residents regarding what they referred to as “the situation with the fire chief.”

“This needs to be looked at,” he said. “I’m especially taken aback by the code of conduct that is here… It’s not something we’re going to be able to ignore.”

LaReau said he did not want to get into a detailed discussion Tuesday, but described the matter as “disturbing.”

Selectman Joe Perry agreed, noting the matter should be discussed during an executive session at the next board meeting.

When asked how closely the letters related to Dittmeier’s past Facebook postings, Gillway declined to comment, noting that the issue is a personnel matter.

When contacted late last week about the ongoing discussions in town relating to social media use, Dittmeier declined to comment because he said the amended policy has yet to be approved.

Reporter Tanya Mitchell can be reached at 338-3333 or at tmitchell@villagesoup.com.