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Council social media training degenerates into confrontation
1/31/2024

Spokane Valley City Council training on policy regarding social media accounts and use of the city's logo turned from benignly informative to heatedly combative after an exchange between two council members at the Jan. 9 meeting.

At the Jan. 2 meeting Councilman Rod Higgins requested city staff review and bring forward policy on using the city's logo on social media accounts. The request came after it was discovered newly elected Councilman Al Merkel was using the Spokane Valley logo on the social media site Next Door for a newly created group covering local governmental issues. 

City Manager John Hohman said he had talked with Merkel about this issue, and had received a lot of communications from council over the past week. Hohman said they reviewed the account and couldn't determine if it was an official account or not.

"Nobody is trying to limit Al's First Amendment rights," Hohman said. "The big question is how do you utilize social media in a way that makes it clear when you're utilizing a personal account vs. an official city account."

In his presentation, City Attorney Kelly Konkright reviewed sections of the city's Governance Manual dealing with the logo and social media. The logo serves as a symbol of the city's authority, and with few exceptions can only be used for official city purposes. The logo can be trademarked as allowed by law, and any use of it outside city business must be made in writing to the city clerk and have prior approval by the city manager.

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"It's property, intellectual property," Konkright said.

The logo may also be used by news media "where the reproduction of the City logo is incident to the publication, communication, or broadcast of news information about the City." Merkel contended his usage fell along this line since as part of his podcast "Spokane Valley Speaks," which he said has been deemed an official news source by other media outlets, even though it hasn't been active since 2022.  

Konkright also explained the Governance Manual's section on social media accounts, passed at the council's Dec. 19 meeting. The section covers accounts, governmental and personal, for discussing city business, noting usage of either of these for city business falls under provisions for preserving and disclosing as a public record under the Public Records Act.

Konkright advised council members against using personal accounts to discuss city business, noting the policy asks members not to do this for issues that "relate to the conduct of city government or the performance of your office." Doing so can create liability for the city as it is not able to follow proper archiving procedures for posts on personal accounts.

Hohman recommended council send the discussion to the city's newly created City Governance Manual Committee for further discussion.

"There are a lot of pieces we have to work through yet," Hohman said about establishing a "robust" city communication's policy, one of the council's priorities for 2024.

It was during the subsequent question and answer session that the discussion went sideways. Merkel said he had "a lot of questions" regarding the policy he felt was directed at him. Specifically, he questioned Konkright on the trademark issue and his use of the logo as a news media outlet. He then questioned the use of staff time in preparing the presentation, trying to pin down Hohman on the cost of the time Merkel felt could be use for other city priorities.

At one point, Merkel held up a chart he had prepared showing costs of various items and asked Hohman to show where the staff time costs for the presentation might fit in.

"We don't track our time on council activities like this," Hohman said. "This is one of those topics that from all the communication traffic going around I deemed to be pretty important that we should probably be tackling it sooner in the year than later."

Merkel continued to press Hohman regarding the chart, at which point the city manager summed up a presentation process that probably took about an hour between himself and Konkright.

At this point, Higgins was recognized by Mayor Pam Haley with a point of order.

"Mr. Merkel is turning this into a circus," Higgins said. "We're trying to conduct business here and I think where this isn't a debate society, that's exactly where we're going. We need to put this into the Governance Manual Committee and deal with it there."

Councilwoman Jessica Yaeger brought up the portion of the logo section regarding prior permission to use.

"Mr. Merkel could have saved all of us a lot of time and efforts in our emails and staff time, since that's what we're talking about, if he would have simply asked to use the logo and been guided appropriately," she said.

After a short silence, Haley tried to move the discussion towards consensus, but was interrupted by Merkel asking if he was being interrupted by Higgins. Haley asked if he had more questions or simply wanted to debate, and Merkel said he had questions.

Merkel said he didn't think he needed permission, and asked if this was the most expedient way of handling the issue given other issues facing council.

"Who are you asking that question of?" Haley asked.

"Mr. Higgins. Councilman Higgins because he brought it up," Merkel responded.

"What?" Higgins asked, at which point Merkel repeated his question.

"Considering what I heard tonight, this has been discussed with the city manager, the city attorney and with a number of people and apparently you're going to bring it out here and extend this meeting God knows how long for your self-gratification," Higgins said.

"Point of order, I take offence to that," Merkel said.

"Good, it was intended that way. OK?" Higgins replied.

"Point of order, intending offence is against our ethics code in the governance manual," Merkel said.

"Good, I'm glad you read it," Higgins said.

Merkel asked for a ruling on his point of order of being interrupted, to which Higgins replied he hadn't received a ruling on his point of order to "cease and desist" discussion and move the meeting along. Higgins again said Merkel could discuss the issue with Hohman and get direction so that "you can spare us all of this."

"Apparently, you don't choose to do that," Higgins said.

"I'm sorry, what is it I don't choose to do," Merkel replied.

At this point, Haley jumped in, stating council was involved in a business meeting and was supposed to be discussing city business, something that wasn't taking place. She closed the question and comment period and asked for consensus to move the issue to committee.

The vote was 5-2 to move to committee, with Merkel and Councilman Ben Wick voting no.

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