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Legal concerns prompt Pinellas County commissioner to unfriend colleagues on Facebook

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch doesn't want to be friends with the other board members — on Facebook.

After a warning from County Attorney Jim Bennett, Welch unfriended the other commissioners on the social network this week.

Bennett has been meeting with commissioners as the county decides how to write rules for using and retaining messages and comments from Facebook and other social media sites. Similar concerns plague governments across the Tampa Bay area as technology outpaces the state's open government laws.

While Bennett hasn't forbidden Facebook ties, Welch echoed the attorney's worries about violating state laws on open meetings and public records. The site could be used to communicate about public policy, and Welch often posts on news and events.

"Overabundance of caution," Welch said of his decision.

State guidelines released last year recommend governments retain records of all tweets and comments on social media if they pertain to public business.

In May, a Florida Bar Journal article noted that "time will tell" whether government controls work, especially when officials run their own Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Pasco County has limited use to one-way communication while its officials figure out rules, chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker said. That means the county can post information, but readers cannot engage them via comments.

Fearing trouble, the state Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee instructed judges in 2009 not to friend lawyers on Facebook if they could show up in their courts, too.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the comments and private messages would be open to a public records request.

But fulfilling such a request may not be easy.

Some private messages — such as direct messages on Twitter — amount to voice mails and phone messages that are not retained under law, he said.

While he doesn't separately archive copies of the comments about public issues, Twitter keeps a time line of tweets that the public can access, he said.

He, too, has unfriended his fellow commissioners.

"You don't want anybody trying to signal a vote," Sharpe said.

The risks also can run beyond open government law to public perception.

Pinellas Commissioner Nancy Bostock has a Facebook page with more than 2,200 friends, including several current commissioners. She often posts article about current policy debates, or job openings in the community.

Comments on public issues are archived by her executive assistant. She cuts and pastes the exchanges into e-mail for archiving.

But she also posts about non-commission events, such as a 2010 party for Republicans she hosted with her husband, Craig, at the Waterin' Trough bar near Pinellas Park.

It was an innocuous post with photos — until the board's July 26 meeting. A resident opposed to the county's decision to allow the bar's patrons to park on a nearby street turned over Bostock's Internet photos to accuse Bostock of having a conflict of interest.

Bostock, who supported parking on the street near the bar, said she did not have a conflict and that her event was not a private one.

She also said she has no plans to unfriend her fellow commissioners.

"I worry it can go too far," she said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Legal concerns prompt Pinellas County commissioner to unfriend colleagues on Facebook 08/12/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 9:52pm]
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