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Thornville council members battle over social media policy

THORNVILLE – Monday night, council member Olivia Newbold strongly opposed a proposed social media resolution, stating that Thornville has had a Facebook page since 2011, but now that she’s on council a new policy is introduced.

Village council members discussed a resolution to place social media use policies in the village council rules; these rules for social media use only apply to council members. Village employee use of social media is addressed via Thornville’s employee handbook. The proposed resolution, which is still pending, will have its third reading during the Oct. 24 council meeting.

Wednesday, Newbold outlined her opposition to the social media resolution in an email to The Beacon. She said, “Like most elected officials, I communicate with my constituents through the use of Facebook and Twitter; however, I am the only member of the Thornville Village Council to do so. Almost a year ago, on November 16, 2015, council called a special meeting to discuss and attempt to limit my use of social media. During that meeting, I refused to delete my social media accounts. For the past 10 months, countless council hours have been devoted to developing a resolution that attempts to restrict my use of social media. The taxpayers of Thornville paid Solicitor (Brian) Zets to draft the resolution. In my opinion, the hours invested by council members and the tax dollars paid to Solicitor Zets would have been better spent on programs related to community development, and economic growth of the Village.

“Although the proposed resolution concerning social media is only directed at members of council, the only derogatory comments that have been posted to either of my social media accounts have been posted (and then deleted) by Mayor Gavin Renner,” Newbold said.

Renner replied, “The proposed council rules for social media are about protecting the village from a lawsuit for what a public official might say online when they are representing themselves and their position on issues. We have no desire to stop free speech, this resolution doesn’t stop council members from using social media. We’re trying to protect the people’s money. We’re obligated to protect it as best we can. You can learn more or get a draft from the village office.”

Monday night, Zets was clear the proposed resolution is not a law, but would be part of council’s rules. “This is just a new rule added to the rulebook,” he said.

What if it’s not followed, Newbold asked.

“I don’t know what you can do to each other if you don’t follow council rules,” Zets said.

Council President Heidi Robinson said the resolution is written as a guideline so all council members follow the same procedures.

Newbold wondered how council could enforce a resolution that’s technically a guideline. “I frankly, would never pass this,” she said. “I think it’s ambiguous and (goes against) the First Amendment, but I’ve always said that.”

“You just have to use common sense in what you present,” said council member Debbie Moyer. “I use common sense when I use my own social media and everyone else can do the same.”

“I would argue this is not needed,” Newbold replied.

“It’s just common sense,” Moyer said. “You don’t want your private life out there; you don’t want your business out there. It’s common sense; it’s all it is.”

Resident Beth Dannaher asked why the resolution only applied to council members and not the mayor and village employees.

Village Administrator Beth Patrick said village employees’ social media use is addressed in the village employee handbook.

Dannaher said the resolution is trying to determine what council members can say online.

Council member Mary Renner said the proposed resolution would go into effect if a council member is posting online on behalf of the village. Personal Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts are not affected.

Zets said council members should be mindful that anything they post on social media could be public record. “We’re not saying anybody’s violated anything,” he said.

Dannaher said she made a public records request for information the mayor posted in Newbold’s account and was told that information was not public record.

Zets said that may be an accurate response because not everything posted online is public record. He said anything deliberately posted as public business may be subject to the Public Records Act.

“It sounds like village business, but I’m going to leave that up to you, Brian,” Newbold said.

Resident Willis McNabb said he believed the proposed social media resolution is an “intimidating article. “It’s obvious you’ve had a problem with emails and social media,” he said. McNabb asked who wrote the resolution.

Robinson said the rules committee wrote it, and it’s taken a while.

McNabb said residents used to be able to comment at any time during council meetings but now can only comment during the citizens’ comment section of the meeting. “This is the same thing,” he said. “There is something going on to bring this up. This is meant to shut somebody up.”

Mary Renner said the rules committee simply researched all they could on social media guidelines for government and brought information back to the committee. She said it wasn’t directed at any particular council member. “What about this could hurt any of us,” she said.

McNabb asked why a similar resolution wasn’t enacted years ago, when social media became popular. Why now?

“We thought it was a good idea,” Robinson said. She said someone outside of council brought it up. “I’m sorry you don’t believe us,” Robinson said. She said the information to create the resolution was brought to the table from several sources.

Resident Chris Hedges said some of his wife’s comments were deleted from the village’s Facebook page. He said there was no profanity, she just disagreed with the village.

Gavin Renner said it was deleted but council meeting was not the place to discuss it.

Dannaher said she believes there’s a double standard with the village between what is and what is not considered public record.

In other village news:

• In an email to The Beacon, Gavin Renner stated, “After Monday’s meeting, I’m going to assume that we’ll be seeing more editorials. There are clearly many strong feelings and we all have our opinions. The only thing I ask from residents is to get both sides of the story and not jump to conclusions about what they are hearing.

“All council members would like to hear input from residents. Their email and contact information is available at the Village Office. You can stop them on the street to provide input. We can meet one on one to discuss issues. You can send us anonymous notes. You can call the Village Office and ask (Patrick). If there is a good idea or we’re not doing something correctly, we’ll take a look at it.

“Council has the right to meet for a working session and not include citizen comments. This can’t be a community with two councils. We can’t divide down the line into multiple communities. We’re not going to encourage people to leave town just because they have different ideas. We need to be one community. There are 1,000 residents here of all sorts of backgrounds. People don’t have to agree, but we do need to get along. Not everyone is going to agree on everything. That means compromise.”

Renner continued, “I know people are upset about the grass and livestock ordinances. The current livestock law, if it’s really a total ban, is unworkable and needs to be revised. As mayor, I’m not going to tell kids they can’t have a rabbit in their backyard. The Planning and Zoning Commission is working on this issue. The survey told us that there is a group of people who don’t want it, a group that do and the silent majority that didn’t weigh in. We’re going to have to figure out a compromise and make it workable. The next meeting is on Oct. 3, 7 p.m. We also have room for one more resident on the planning commission.

“The same goes for the weeds and grass. It’s personally been a thorn in my side since 2008. I grew up outside of town. We didn’t mow our grass every week. Despite what I think, people here have said loud and clear they don’t want tall grass or what they think are weeds. Recently we’re hearing about alternative things like natural areas. Personally those sound like great ideas, but I’d like the Village to keep out of the landscape patrol business. However, I’m obligated by my job to ensure the law is followed as written. It doesn’t give me leeway. I can’t enforce on one person and look the other way on another. That’s not fair.”

Renner concluded, “We’ve received clear feedback from residents that they are getting weary of hearing about infighting over non-issues. I’m personally tired of hearing the nitpicking about all the things employees, council, other resident supposedly have or have not done. I believe I’ve said all I need to say on those issues. Check the facts, talk to people who know. We’re all just trying to help the community here. That’s why I’m doing this job in the first place. That’s why other people volunteer their time.”

• Zets said he’s being badgered about what he’s doing for the village and what he’s charging.

Newbold asked if she could review a list of Zets’ services and charges to the village.

Mary Renner said she’s welcome to review that information at any time. The information, like other village information in any village, must remain at the Village Office and can’t be removed or distributed. But, it’s completely open for review.

“We trust (Zets),” said council member Lynn Snider. “People are attacking him when he’s the innocent guy over there.” She said the village has never had a problem with Zets or his firm.

Zets said he often reduces his own fees to give the village a break.

In an email, Newbold explained why she questioned Zets. “The agenda, which is set by the Mayor, for the last Council meeting called for the renewal of Solicitor Zets’ contract with the village on an emergency basis. There was no reason to renew Solicitor Zets’ contract, which does not expire until December on an emergency basis in September. I plan to review the reasonableness of Solicitor Zets’ fees, not only by looking at his hourly rate, but by looking at the matters he has been tasked to work on, as well as his past and present performance. I do not feel that the taxpayers of the Village should pay Solicitor Zets to perform legal tasks related to the infighting of council members, or personal disputes of elected officials. At the last personnel committee meeting, I suggested interviewing other attorneys so we could make a more informed decision about hiring a village solicitor. My suggestion was dismissed.”

Newbold continued, “As a council member, I am responsible, along with the other council members, for the budget and have a fiduciary duty to spend public funds wisely. I plan to fully explore funds paid to the Village Solicitor at the next regular council meeting, which will be held on October 24, 2016, and I encourage all villagers to attend.”

Patrick said no one is tighter on budgetary issues and she and Fiscal Officer Melissa Tremblay. “I truly look at every dime we spend to see if we need to spend it,” Patrick said. “I look for ways to save money. I know the state we were in 12 years ago and I never want to get into that state again.”

Tremblay said the village just received a clean audit from the State of Ohio.

Hedges said he’s not questioning Patrick, he’s questioning what’s being done and he doesn’t want a lawyer being used for anyone’s personal agenda on the village government.

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