EC Executive Mark Poloncarz records video/WBEN Photo

Should There Be a Social Media Policy for Erie County Officials?

Some legislators think so...

February 28, 2019 - 3:34 am
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BUFFALO (WBEN) - It's well documented that Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is very active on his social media pages, especially Twitter. However, some county legislators believe his presence on social media might go a tad too far. 

"There needs to be some type of policy, there needs to be some type of separation between the county executive, or anybody's government accounts and political accounts," said Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo. 

Legislator Lynne Dixon, who announced on Wednesday that she is running for the county executive position in November, didn't have as much to say about the need for separation, but rather there's just too much time being devoted to social media.

"I think when you're county executive for a county the size of Erie, there are a lot of issues to address in Erie County, and I think what troubles me is when [Poloncarz> is on Twitter all day long, during the work day, tweeting about national and international issues," she began. "While everyone is certainly welcome to have their opinion on the issues outside of the county, I think that this is an important position that needs your full attention, and I think it's more important that you are paying attention to the issues that are directly impacting Erie County."

In fact, Lorigo even asked the county attorney to draft a policy that outlines a specific policy regarding social media use by elected county officials, especially after Poloncarz was served a notice of claim about comments he made toward the owners of Emerald South nursing home back in August.

However, his request was denied.

"He has refused," stated Lorigo. "I sent a letter asking him why he would refuse, because it's something that would be good for everybody, and in his response, he tells me that he has a conflict of interest because the county attorney is already representing the county executive in depositions related to Mark Poloncarz's use of social media."

Lorigo also noted that there is legal precedent when it comes to similar incidents around the country, but University at Buffalo Associate Professor of Political Science, Jacob Neiheisel, says the rigidness of those statutes aren't so concrete.

"At the federal level, there's something called the Hatch Act, which is that elected officials can't be engaging in partisan conduct on the clock, essentially, and so there's usually a pretty firm line on the federal and state level between a campaign and the governing phase," said Neiheisel. "That being said, those lines can be blurred and politicians have long used a lot of those institutional resources to advertise their own name. I think where is starts to cross the line is where they make more partisan type of statements, and even there it's very fuzzy."

Neiheisel then pointed to the person who holds the highest offices in American politics.

"We have a President who likes Twitter quite a bit," he said. "So, I think people are getting used to the idea that this is just something that politicians do and that lines between public and private are being blurred across the board."

However, Dixon questioned the efficiency of a public officials who tweets as much as Poloncarz.

"If you are on Twitter all day, tweeting about things not pertaining to Erie County, does that mean that you're not taking phone calls, you're not meeting with commissioners, that you're not speaking with residents, that you're not out at a senior center?" she asked. 

Neiheisel said there may be some validity for Dixon to use this argument against Poloncarz in this looming campaign.

"I think the idea that he's a very active presence and perhaps, in the minds of some, he may cross a line in terms of using his personal account for politicking purposes or politicizing events that otherwise might not be, I think that could stick among certain segments of the population," he said.

However, Neiheisel also alluded to the idea of Dixon needing something to stick, because he sees her campaign as an uphill battle against a strong incumbent.

"I think the biggest dynamic in this race is going to be incumbency," he said. "Poloncarz is a name that is fairly well-known across the county, he has a lot of advantages institutionally to get his name out there, and at least recently with all the storms around, he's had a lot of opportunities to even further his lead in terms of name recognition."

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