In the pantheon of ethical sins, last week’s Facebook faux pas in which Frederick County’s spokeswoman posted what amounted to a government-funded advertisement for the taxicab business co-owned by her boss, county Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young, is a barely a blip on the screen.
If you missed it, Public Information Officer Robin Santangelo on Nov. 28 posted a link on her professional Facebook page that promoted a new phone app for potential customers who wanted to book a taxi from Young’s Yellow Cab company. The posting was also linked to Young’s personal Facebook page.
When told of the posting by The Gazette, Young immediately ordered Santangelo to take it down. She apologized and did so, although it is still unclear why she put it there in the first place. Was it an inadvertent mistake? Did she think Young wanted her to post it there? We don’t know because she is not saying.
Even in the blurry Brave New World of social media where anything goes, there are lines. People have personal Facebook pages where they post private information about themselves, their families and businesses. Professional Facebook pages, however, are generally used for job-related matters.
But that is not a law, just a best practice that has evolved on its own as technology changes how we conduct our lives and business. In this case, Santangelo’s business is to provide information about the county to the public, not to help a government official conduct his private enterprise on the taxpayer’s dime.
Young, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, seemed to know immediately that a line had been crossed.
“In my opinion and others this creates an appearance of conflict of interest, please remove it immediately,” Young said in an email he fired off to Santangelo.
The matter was quickly dispatched, no big deal. The county has lots of more serious issues to worry about, even if Young enjoyed a few days of free publicity for his private business in what is generally viewed as a public portal.
But the incident did focus some electrons on a glaring oversight: there is apparently nothing in either the county’s or Maryland’s ethics laws addressing Facebook postings — or anything else related to the ethical challenges posed by social media.
As County Attorney Charles Mathias put it: “It is difficult to apply rules that were created in the era of pen and paper to the electronic era.”
Indeed, but as Mathias properly pointed out, lacking any specific guidance in the letter of the ethics law, public officials still need to take its spirit to heart in deciding how to use new media to advance their political or private careers, or those of their employers.
“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.”
That’s sound advice, especially since it would be difficult to write legislation that covers all the contingencies of a moving target like technology. Immediately impaneling a state task force to look into the ethical issues of social media for public officials would probably do little real good, other than bring some needed attention to the potential for abuse.
Clearly, it is nearly impossible to anticipate how new ways of communicating and connectivity yet to be invented should be regulated to prevent politicians from using public office for private gain. That’s tough enough to do in an analog world, much less an electronic one, where Facebook postings are gone before you can monitor them.
That leaves it to public officials to police themselves when it comes to social media — which is a particularly disconcerting thought. So, as usual, it is really up to the online public to cast a wary eye on the actions of increasingly tweeting and Facebooking politicians to ferret out clear offenders, and, more importantly, help establish those hard-to-define boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed.
Who knows, maybe someone will come up with an app for that eventually.