News Column

Facebook Ties Legislature in Knots

March 22, 2013

Richard Mauer

Whether Facebook and other social media sites should be accessible to legislative branch employees and agencies tied a legislative committee in knots Thursday before it decided to kick the problem to a future meeting, perhaps in the summer.

"Facebook remains an issue of the Alaska State Legislature second only to oil taxes," groaned the chairman of the Legislative Council, Rep. Mike Hawker.

In its March meeting Thursday afternoon, the council, a joint committee that functions as chief executive, housekeeper and business manager of the Legislature, also decided to retain the lease for the Legislature's Anchorage building for another year as it continues looking for another locale. Security at the Capitol also came up and was moved to a subcommittee to discuss.

The question of social media policy occupied more than an hour of the council's time before it moved on to other issues, leaving the policy unresolved. Hawker, who took over as chairman in the current session, said he learned that the previous policy on Facebook had expired more than a year ago, leaving current users in legal limbo.

That policy, approved Feb. 3, 2011, as a one-year experiment, allowed legislators themselves and the legislative press offices to use their official computers to post on Facebook, but no one else. The council agreed to extend that "experiment" until the council agrees to a formal policy.

But before it took that stalling action, it heard from an aide who said that at least two legislative agencies were clamoring for access to Facebook so they could do their jobs. The renewal of the experiment did nothing for those agencies.

The aide, Juli Lucky, a staffer in Hawker's office, said that the Office of Victims' Rights and the Alaska Ombudsman needed to use Facebook for investigations.

"Somebody has an ethics complaint and calls up our ethics office and says, 'Well, I saw this on Facebook,' and right now, our ethics office can't even look at that," Lucky said. "They have to say, 'Can you make a pdf and send it to me?' Or the Office of Victims' Rights has gotten calls from victims that say, 'Somebody is not abiding by the terms of their release, I saw them post this on Facebook and can you look into that,' and they say, 'Can you send me the Facebook page?' "

Alaska's executive branch allows employees to access Facebook on official computers, as do most states, she said.

Legislative access, as currently enforced by the Legislature's technology department, is by computer, so an aide can use a state computer assigned to a Legislator to post something on Facebook, Lucky said. The public wifi network in the Capitol also allows access to Facebook, but only with a personal computer, tablet or smartphone.

Unresolved, in addition to access, is whether legislators can promote nonprofit fundraising events using social media and state computers.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, a frequent Facebook poster, said she thought she should be allowed to support the causes she holds dear, like Special Olympics. Rep. Craig Johnson, another Anchorage Republican, pointed out that political parties are also nonprofits, and politicking is banned using state facilities.

Doug Gardner, director of legal services for the Legislature, said using Facebook's messaging service could be a violation of the state's public records law if the message is not archived, but only if the Legislator is discussing contracts or employment, he said. Most legislative communications are not public records, such as messages to constituents, he said.

More than an hour into the meeting, Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, proposed a total ban on Facebook access.

"That would be the entire legislative branch of government," confirmed Hawker. Stoltze agreed that was his intent.

After a brief discussion, Hawker called a recess. When the meeting resumed, Stoltze withdrew his motion and suggested the matter be taken up over the summer.

On other issues, the council agreed to exercise its option to renew the lease on the Legislature's Anchorage offices on Fourth Avenue for another year, to May 31, 2014. The annual rent will be $681,854.

The lease has no more renewal options after 2014. Hawker said the council is looking for another building, but declined to go into specifics.

"It's under discussion and advisement and when we're ready to come forward with thoughts on it, we will," he said in an interview. "There was a procurement process that was under way when I took over this chair, and I am continuing that procurement process."

Sen. Gary Stevens said he had earlier raised the question of security with Hawker. At the meeting Stevens found himself appointed to a subcommittee to explore the question. He said he didn't have any particular concern in mind.

"The Senate has been working in the last few months and busily meeting and several members have mentioned to me that they're concerned about the unsavory and dangerous people they have seen in the building," said Stevens, pausing with impeccable timing before adding: "Unfortunately, all those have turned out to be members of the House."

Stoltze had a straight response, saying that the signs at the Capitol doors barring guns could make it more dangerous.

"There might be a female employee that has to walk down Franklin Street after a long night of work -- is prohibited from carrying a gun," he said. "Those signs on the entrances of our building are a little bit inconsistent with some of the legislative actions we've been taking."


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Source: (c)2013 the Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by MCT Information Services