WILLIAMSTOWN — When it comes to town-sponsored Facebook pages, the Select Board on Monday adopted a “no comments” policy it believes will best serve the community.
The board was also told it is facing a hefty investment to protect and secure information contained on the town’s outdated computer server.
Heavily vetted by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the new policy contemplates using Facebook as a means of spreading municipal information without opening the door to what board members feared could be frequently unproductive and potentially libelous online conversations.
While Chairman Matthew Rouleau acknowledged the change may “border on censorship” to some, the alternative — at least from a liability perspective — was worse.
“My fear is opinions masquerade as facts a lot of times,” he said. “I’d rather not have that happen.”
At least not on Facebook pages that are seemingly sanctioned by the town.
Heading into Monday night’s meeting, three Facebook pages fit that bill — one for the town, another for public safety personnel and a third specifically created for the fire department and moderated by Fire Chief William Graham and resident Cindy Cross-Greenia.
The latter page was removed last month and won’t be restored because it is viewed as redundant.
The public safety page already provides a forum for Graham to share fire department-related information and for Don Angolano and Marie Abare to post items of interest about the ambulance service. However, under the new policy, comments will not be permitted.
That will also be true of the town page, according to Town Clerk Barbara Graham, who is responsible for administering it and said Tuesday she disabled the comment capability several months ago.
Cross-Greenia pushed back on the decision to eliminate the fire department Facebook page she was credited with starting. The page, she said, had proven to be a successful fundraising tool for the department, as well as a way to spread helpful information.
“This is not frivolous stuff,” she said. “This is not gossip.”
Board member Jessica Worn said nothing in the policy will prevent the sharing of the kinds of information Cross-Greenia argued was valuable.
“All those posts can still happen,” she said, noting contact information would be provided for residents who need additional information or want to provide feedback.
Worn said that communication would occur in a “more controlled” one-on-one way.
Rouleau said that is his strong preference in a world where Facebook often generates more heat than light — a sentiment he expressed earlier in the evening during a protracted discussion of an animal control issue he argued was blown out of proportion on social media.
“The unfortunate part about Facebook is it can also be a reactive tool,” Rouleau said. “When you’re upset, or you’re angry, or you’re confused it ends up on Facebook and it’s hurtful to a lot of people, whether it’s hurting them personally or it’s harmful to their business.”
Though some residents were openly critical of the town’s animal control officer and the local boarding facility it uses, Rouleau said both provide valuable services to the town and neither warranted the criticism they received online.
Those postings coincided with the town’s decision to remove the fire department’s Facebook page and consider adopting a social media policy establishing rules for using the pages that would continue to operate with the board’s blessing.
While the board adopted a policy it hopes will resolve any future Facebook problems, members were told they must soon address a technological issue that will require a pricey fix.
Angolano, who provides information technology services to the town, said replacing a soon-to-be-obsolete server that isn’t backed up and poses a massive security issue and data breach risk must be a priority before Microsoft ends support for the system in January.
Board members were walked through a proposal from SymQuest that would require an unbudgeted expense of $23,800 for hardware alone. The board asked Angolano and Town Manager Jackie Higgins to prepare a refined estimate of the financial impact of the proposal for their consideration next month.
Angolano said the board couldn’t wait much longer than that given the six to eight weeks it would take to order and install the equipment before transitioning to the new system.
“The closer we get to January, the more dire it’s going to become,” he said.