The county’s public information officer was ordered Tuesday morning to remove a link on her government Facebook page promoting the taxicab business of Frederick Board of Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young after an inquiry by The Gazette.
Young (R) told Robin Santangelo to immediately remove a link she posted on her Facebook page on Nov. 28 announcing a new application that allows customers to use their cellphone to book a taxi from Yellow Cab in Frederick, which Young co-owns.
The posting was also linked to Young's personal Facebook page.
A personal Facebook page is typically for friends and family, and includes postings that depict someone’s private life. A professional Facebook page is reserved for postings and links connected to a person’s job.
Santangelo apologized in an email to Young and removed the link.
Santangelo, who makes an annual salary of $64,440, is the spokeswoman for the county government. Her primary responsibility is to provide information to the media and the public.
When contacted about the link Tuesday morning, Young said he was unaware of Santangelo's posting.
“She needs to take it off immediately,” he said. "Obviously, there has got to be a separation [between president of board and co-owner of Yellow Cab]. This needs to be removed immediately."
Young then contacted Santangelo on her cellphone and by email, instructing her to remove the link. The email also went to County Manager Lori Depies and Assistant County Attorney Linda Thall.
“In my opinion and others this creates an appearance of conflict of interest, please remove it immediately,” Young said in the email.
Depies agreed with Young.
“I just checked it myself, yes, Robin you linked to Blaine's page,” Depies said in an email to Santangelo. “Please delete the link from your page immediately.”
Thall was not at work Tuesday.
Santangelo also said in the email that Young never asked her to post a link to his cab business on her county Facebook page. Santangelo declined further comment.
County Attorney John Mathias said he was unaware of the posting, but would have also instructed Santangelo to remove the link from her county Facebook page.
Mathias, who also declined to comment further on the posting, said there is nothing in county or state ethics ordinances addressing Facebook page postings.
But he conceded that social media pose new ethical challenges for elected officials.
Although the county ethics ordinance, which governs the conduct of a commissioner or employee, does not address Facebook postings, the law as written must be applied, Mathias said.
“It is difficult to apply rules that were created in the era of pen and paper to the electronic era,” he said. “The laws haven’t changed. ... The ethics ordinance says that a county employee generally should not use the prestige of their office for the private gain of another. It’s the same rules.”
The only exception to the rule is that a county commissioner or employee can promote an event that is intended to highlight the county as a great place to live and work, Mathias said.
Mathias said that even if the state or county decides to address social media ethics issues, it would be difficult because postings disappear quickly.
“Generally, with the nature of Facebook, [postings] are gone quickly,” he said. “It’s difficult to police them in any fashion.”