The internet is truly a remarkable thing. As a whole society, people from all over the globe have become better connected to each other, and are now informed (and sometimes misinformed) about events all over the world. The internet has also allowed us to become more connected to our government in many ways, but in Amarillo, this seems to be a particularly unique struggle.
During the public comment period for Tuesday’s meeting of the Amarillo City Council, Mayor Ginger Nelson attempted to tell a resident that campaign pages created by the now-incumbents have no bearing on municipal policy and services. Nelson also scolded this resident for speaking of “personal Facebook pages” and told her to keep remarks on municipal policy.
It was an odd chain of events. For those who were not in attendance at the meeting, this resident was speaking of comments made on the “Elaine Hays, Amarillo City Councilmember Place 1” Facebook page, in which Hays attempted to explain her views on tax increases in Amarillo.
There is a lot to unpack about this exchange between Nelson and this resident. First, Nelson said the pages were “personal Facebook pages” used during the process of campaigning, and therefore have no bearing on municipal policy. It is worth noting that after Amarillo voters elected five new Councilmembers in May 2017, four of the five individuals changed their page names to reflect the offices they had won. This means today, if a person was to message Ginger Nelson’s public page, they would be interacting with “Mayor Ginger Nelson” and not “Ginger Nelson for Mayor.” This is the same with every person on the City Council, with the exception of Howard Smith.
In my view, this makes the four pages representations of the respective elected officials. While Councilmembers may not feel this way, most of the individuals, especially in the case of Nelson, have heavily used the pages to relay their thoughts on municipal matters. Because the Council is not afforded “official” pages like members of Congress, this means the pages with their elected titles are represented as official pages for the members, in the eyes of many residents.
There is also something else that concerns me about what Nelson said. Mayor Nelson called these pages “personal Facebook pages.” Does this mean if a person files an Open Records Request for correspondence between Councilmembers, the messages on these pages are sealed from the public? If this is the case, it makes me very concerned Councilmembers will choose to communicate over social media to avoid being bound by state law. I am not alleging this to be the case, but it is something that should be considered.
While it may be easy to try and brush off these pages, Nelson and the Councilmembers need to own up to the content on these pages. If Councilmembers use their pages for legislative purposes, which at least three members regularly do, then they need to be treated as municipal business. It may not be a fun thing for Mayor Nelson and Council to listen to citizens recite quotes written on the pages, but they signed up for these jobs. If they have no interest in communicating with citizens, then they have no business being on the City Council.
Do your job, or leave office.
-Thomas Warren III, Editor-in-Chief