As social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, continue to grow in popularity municipalities are presented with the ever-increasing difficulty of monitoring what information town employees are posting.

Searsport officials began considering amending policies for town employees following an incident when Fire Chief Jim Dittmeier posted his thoughts on Searsport Fire Department’s Facebook page on the proposed installation of a 22.7-million gallon LPG tank at Mack Point (click here for the full story).

In his posting, Dittmeier encouraged the “silent majority” of people in town to voice their opinions. He also said the project would create jobs and result in more tax revenue for the town.

As a result of those postings, the Searsport Board of Selectmen began discussing the merits of adding a policy regarding social media use during an April 3 meeting. 

According to a copy of the social media policy, which will be voted on during a selectmen meeting Tuesday, May 1, town employees will be required to consult with their social media supervisor before posting anything online. In addition, the policy applies to all employees and committee members and that the policy could change as social media evolves.

Belfast City Manager Joseph Slocum said the city doesn’t have an official policy regarding the use of social media but he said he hoped city employees would use common sense before posting anything that could be inflammatory.

“I’m not aware of any cases where employees have misused it [social media],” Slocum said. “I did get a complaint a while about something a few employees had posted. They felt bad about the situation and apologized.”

According to city ordinances, employees of the city are “prohibited from engaging in any conduct which could reflect unfavorably upon the city or disrupt the efficient operation of the administration of the city. City employees must avoid any action, which might result in or create the impression of using public employment for private gain, giving preferential treatment to any person or losing complete impartiality in conducting city business.”

Though Belfast has avoided any serious problems with inappropriate use of social media by a city employee, Slocum acknowledged it would be a good idea to have an official policy in place.

“Some sort of policy would be good. I would be responsible for pulling it together,” he said. “The policy would provide clarity for employees.”

Like Belfast, Stockton Springs has not crafted a social media policy because the town hasn’t had an issue with town employees making inappropriate postings.

“I haven’t asked any of my staff if they have Facebook accounts and that’s not something I plan on doing,” newly hired Town Manager Richard Couch said. “I do believe my employees are ethical and honest.”

Couch, who used Facebook while working for a grass-roots advocacy group in New York, said he understands and respects the power of social media but creating a policy for the town would not be in the best interests of the residents.

“Maybe we should have a policy, but I don’t see it as a priority,” he said. “I think so much of government is reactive — which isn’t always a good thing — but we have other issues to deal with at the moment.”

If an issue arises where a policy needs to be implemented, Couch said he would consider making changes. However, he noted residents communicate primarily by phone or in person, and few people rely on social media.

“We don’t have a large email base in town. We have one email account and that goes to everybody,” Couch said.

Lincolnville Town Administrator David Kinney said the town doesn’t have an official policy for social media at this time but is looking at implementing something in the near future.

“Currently, we don’t use a lot of social media but our police department and fire department both have Facebook pages,” Kinney said. “One of the selectman said we should have a policy in place because people could post things that we don’t have a lot of control over.”

Kinney added he didn’t know of any issues where an employee had posted anything inappropriate on a social media site, but said having a policy in place would help guide employees.

“Social media is a valuable tool to get information out, like road closures or lost animals, and our policy would cover what should or shouldn’t be posted,” he said.

Even with a policy in place, Kinney acknowledged the ever-changing technology landscape will make it difficult to stay on top of everything.

“I’d much rather be proactive rather than reactive. You can’t foresee everything that might occur,” he said.

Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for Maine Municipal Association, said the issue of social media is an evolving issue and one that is beginning to be addressed by more towns.

“Police and public works departments are primarily the ones using social media,” Conrad said. “They use Facebook and Twitter to get information out to residents.”

The MMA, which is in the process of preparing to release its social media guidelines, encourages employees to think about what they are posting.

“It isn’t so much a policy as it is a guide,” Conrad said. “There’s only so much an employer can do regarding how employees are using social media outside of work.”

Reporter Tanya Mitchell contributed to this story.

Reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or bholbrook@villagesoup.com.