NEWINGTON – Town commissioners are being asked to “just be nice” on social media and in their daily lives.
Town Council unanimously approved Social Media Guidelines at its recent meeting, to be added to a procedural book governing members of town boards, committees and commissions. Unfriendly banter on Facebook and other online communication platforms led to this suggested code of conduct, which applies to adult volunteers representing the town.
“The Town of Newington depends upon an environment of tolerance and respect for the achievement of its goals in serving the citizens of the Town,” the approved statement reads. “In that spirit, public comments by elected or appointed officials in any forum that contain racial slurs, express bigotry toward a group based on their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or any other legally protected classification may be considered unbecoming of a town official and may constitute good cause for removal of the elected or appointed official.”
An August exchange of messages on the privately-managed ‘What’s Happening in Newington’ Facebook page was the catalyst. A few dozen people wrote letters to councilors urging them to remove page administrator Scott Greczkowski from his seat on the town’s Economic Development Commission, after he publicly told a Newington High School student to “f*** off” during an online disagreement.
Town Attorney Ben Ancona told councilors that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution sanctions Americans’ right to free speech. A sub-committee of Diana Serra, Tim Manke, Nick Arace and Board of Education member Michael Branda worked with Ancona to craft the guidelines as a more appropriate response to the incident.
“Whether you’re elected or appointed hold yourself to a higher standard,” Serra said before the vote was taken. “Be respectful of the people you live with in this town. Everyone has an opinion…but think before you post it.”
Ancona emphasized that to terminate a commissioner for this type of behavior, a civil lawsuit would need to be filed.
“It’s a nice paragraph that’s a suggested code of conduct,” he said. “Nobody is going to be fired over this.”
Arace called the non-binding policy “very transferrable”, saying councilors should also abide by it.
“It’s not going to be ‘do as we say, not as we do’, it’s going to be do as we do,” Mayor Roy Zartarian added.
Dana Havens, another ‘What’s Happening in Newington’ page administrator, asked councilors to narrow the guidelines down to posts made only about Newington-related issues or on Newington forums.
“The way it’s worded…I think that change should be made,” Havens said.
Councilors went on to approve the original statement, with only minor grammatical changes.
“There’s plenty of checks and balances (for town officials) without having to delegate it in words,” Arace said. “Voters can choose who they do or don’t re-elect. It’s clear and simple. Let’s all just be nice.”
Town Plan & Zoning Commissioner Michael Fox complimented their careful consideration of the issue.
“Zuckerberg has really created a monster and that monster is out of control,” Fox said, referring to Facebook and its creator Mark Zuckerberg. “Those of us who serve on commissions really do have to present a better appearance than most people...It really reflects on the commission and the town as a whole.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.