Should cities have "fans"?
That's the question municipalities are asking themselves as more of them explore social networking on sites like Facebook.
"It is a powerful tool to connect with people," said Cyndee Woolley, owner of C2 Communications, a Collier County firm that specializes in public relations, marketing and social media. "It is a way to educate people who are not necessarily reading the paper or are working and not able to attend certain meetings."
Some cities, like Largo and Dunedin, are embracing social networking to spread their messages. Clearwater will begin soon. Others, like St. Petersburg, are entering cautiously. Still others, like Fort Lauderdale, have decided against it entirely.
That's because the information on municipalities' networking pages that relates to official business, including comments from "friends" or "fans," are public records. State law requires governments to keep them.
The law also restricts elected officials and government board members from talking about public business out of the public eye. Legal opinions indicate that social networking could become a forum for them to communicate about issues that should be discussed at public meetings.
"It's become more of a challenge, as these new technologies evolve, to comply with public records law and make sure there's no violation of the Sunshine Law," said John Wolfe, St. Petersburg city attorney. "But we're doing it."
Largo has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and YouTube social sites. It "tweets" information about city news and Largo Public Library events. And it publicizes library and Recreation, Parks & Arts programs on Facebook. The city, which launched its recreation page last month, has almost 850 fans.
Dunedin publicizes everything from holiday parades to trash collection on its Twitter and Facebook pages. The city, which began regular Facebook posts in September, has about 900 fans.
"Our community is so connected. People really do want to know what's going on," said Courtney King, Dunedin's communications supervisor.
But there are no consistent policies for handling legal responsibilities that come with it.
"It seems like everybody's kind of winging it," King said.
Before giving St. Petersburg the green light to explore Facebook, its legal division made a choice.
"On Facebook, we just won't have any friends," Wolfe said. "We don't want to have to keep track of incoming messages."
Coral Springs, in Broward County, waited for an opinion from Attorney General Bill McCollum before launching its Facebook page.
The opinion, issued in April, said in part that anything that fits the definition of a public record is one, including Facebook posts.
Coral Springs didn't want to abandon public feedback just because it had to save it.
"Shutting off the capacity to post sort of undercuts what we're trying to do," Christine Verdi-Sarwar, the city's marketing and communications director.
Instead, the city created a separate e-mail account just for the site. When someone posts to the page, the city has an e-mail record of the comment.
Coral Springs also created a separate group of fans on its Facebook page for elected officials and board members. None of them is permitted to post on the city's page to avoid potential violations, Verdi-Sarwar said.
Largo hasn't sweated about tracking run-of-the-mill comments. But if there is a question that requires a response, Largo captures a screen image to keep a record, said Kate O'Connell, the city's communications and marketing supervisor.
O'Connell said giving the public the ability to comment has helped the city "respond in real time and change the programs to what was actually needed."
Dunedin regularly prints its Facebook page so it can keep track of comments, King said.
In May, following McCollum's opinion, Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Harry A. Stewart discouraged his city from having a Facebook page or participating in any similar platform. He was unsure of its abilities to retain such records.
"It is a simple fact that the state of the law is lagging woefully behind the state of the art in communications technology," he wrote.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, said she sees a need for educating rather than changing the law.
"We need cities and governments to develop policies about how their officials will be allowed to use such technologies," she said.