Selectboard approves technology policy (9/24/09)

Rules govern town workers’ online behavior

Sept. 24, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Town employees must minimize cell phone use while driving and watch what they say online under a new technology use policy passed Monday by the Williston Selectboard.

The policy sets rules for both well-established means of communication such as telephones and e-mail and newer technology such as Facebook and YouTube. It governs their use while municipal employees are at work and even in some cases during off-duty hours.

The Selectboard briefly discussed the policy before approving it. Board members had reviewed a draft of the four-page document last month and asked for minor revisions and one weightier change: stricter rules on cell phone use while driving.

“To the extent possible, Town employees should avoid the use of cell phones or undertake activities that might distract attention from the road while driving town vehicles or a personal vehicle on town business,” the revised language states. “If it becomes necessary to use a cell phone, employees must use a ‘hands-free’ feature of the phone while driving.”

The revision, which added the language encouraging employees to forgo cell phone use while driving, represents a compromise. Some department heads opposed restrictions, saying that cell phones are essential tools for employees. Board member Judy Sassorossi wanted an outright ban on cell phone use when driving, asserting that studies show it is dangerous.

Board member Jeff Fehrs raised new concerns on Monday about provisions of the policy governing use of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Employees who identify themselves as town workers on the Internet must be respectful and avoid vulgar language, the policy says. Personal Web sites and blogs cannot “disparage the town, employees/officials of the town, or the public,” nor can they be used to discuss illegal activities. The rules apply even to off-duty hours.

But Fehrs said the policy should also strongly discourage if not forbid use of social networking sites when at work.

“Social networking is what I view my kids do for far too long, and what I view as having very dubious value,” he said, drawing chuckles from the board.

“Now they get a huge value out of it for sure,” Fehrs added. “It is the way a whole generation communicates. I just want to make sure we are condoning only professionally related use.”

Town Manager Rick McGuire said the policy, by regulating what is said and done online by town employees regardless of whether they are off-duty or not, avoids inappropriate or embarrassing conduct.

“There’s a limitation on what they can be doing,” McGuire said. “Because they are essentially representing themselves as an employee, there’s a different standard.”

Nonetheless, Fehrs said he could not vote for the policy without further restrictions on social networking. He abstained, but the policy still passed with a 3-0 vote.

Much of the policy mirrors long-established rules in other workplaces in the private and public sectors.

For example, employees “have no expectation of privacy” when it comes to e-mail or other content on town computers, the policy states. It notes that e-mail and other information stored on town computers may be open to public scrutiny under Vermont’s Public Records Law.

Employees are supposed to limit e-mail use to an occasional message to or from home. They cannot distribute confidential data, illegally copy software or send sexually explicit images or messages.

The policy allows the town manager or his designee to review violations. Employees who break the rules are subject to undefined penalties determined by the town manager “up to and including termination.”