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Debate over tweet reflects wider issue in Mansfield

The Board of Selectmen in Mansfield is considering whether to adopt a policy, or set of guidelines, on the use of social media by town officials after Selectman Olivier Kozlowski came under fire recently for sending out a tweet about a “Now Hiring” sign at an area store that was written in both English and Spanish.

Kozlowski, who uses the Twitter handle @SelectmanKoz, said he was speaking as a consumer when he posted a picture of the sign, written in English on the top half and in Spanish below it, at the Lowe’s home goods store in West Bridgewater, and the comment “What level of customer service can I expect from applicants who need the lower half of this sign?”

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The May 17 tweet drew both critical and supportive responses on Twitter and in local news outlets. Five residents took the selectman to task for it during the board’s meeting on May 28.

Sarah Forbes, one of those who spoke at the selectmen’s meeting, later described Kozlowski’s tweet as “bigoted.” Others criticized the tweet as “racist” and “anti-immigrant.”

Kozlowski, however, said that his tweet has been misinterpreted, and that he has a right to speak his mind as a consumer.

The question of how to monitor social media use by municipal employees and members of elected and appointed boards has become an issue across the state, says Easton Town Administrator David A. Colton.

Colton said his town has been working on a policy on social media, but the matter became even more serious after a Board of Health member posted derogatory comments about a local restaurant on a personal Facebook page. Since the board oversees health and safety regulations for restaurants in town, the comments were clearly a problem, Colton said, and highlighted the need for a policy.

“It gave it a little more urgency. We’re trying to get out in front of this,” he said. “It’s an emerging area that we’re all trying to figure out.”

In the Mansfield case, Forbes and several other residents contend Kozlowski crossed the line with his tweet.

The selectman, Forbes said, is at best “ill informed — I think more Americans should speak a second language.”

Describing herself as a liberal who likes to write what she called “inflammatory” letters to local newspapers, Forbes also said that while Kozlowski has the right “to say any fool thing he wants to say,” he needs to get a separate Twitter handle for expressing personal opinions, instead of using one identifying him as a Mansfield official.

“It makes the town look like a bunch of rubes,” she said.

In an interview, Kozlowski, who says he is a libertarian and sometimes politically conservative, said he has a right to speak his mind as a citizen and as one of the town’s five selectmen.

“Me and two of my colleagues can make policy, but not me alone,” Kozlowski said. “Frankly, I was speaking as a consumer. I was asking as a consumer who doesn’t speak Spanish, whether a person who only does will be able to communicate with me.”

He said he has declined to take the photo and message down from his Twitter site, and does not consider his posting to be racist or anti-immigrant, adding that he had posed his question to provoke discussion.

“It’s interesting how people just jump to conclusions about what your motives are. Some people don’t even dare talk about these topics for fear of what they might be called. It seems there are some topics you can’t even discuss,” he said.

After hearing from residents on May 28, the Board of Selectmen agreed to take up whether to adopt a social media policy at a later meeting. Chairman George C. Dentino said the board’s agenda was packed for the next several weeks, and the soonest it could be addressed would be June 25 or July 9.

Dentino, who does not use social media but describes himself as outspoken, said: “I’m afraid of trying to take people’s voices away from them. I think everybody’s entitled to their opinion.”

Dentino said he is sensitive to the issue because about three years ago the Board of Selectmen tried to impose a policy in reaction to his frequent comments to the news media about security changes he felt were needed at the Xfinity Center, then known as the Comcast Center. He said the security changes were put into place at the outdoor performance venue in part because he spoke out.

While social media policies work for companies, he said, they need to be approached differently for residents serving as volunteers on town boards.

“We’re not employees. We are representatives of the town. We also speak for ourselves,” Dentino said. “We’re residents a greater number of hours than we are selectmen.”

He said it is likely the board will adopt some sort of policy.

In Easton, Colton said he wants to see a unified policy covering the members of both appointed and elected boards.

“They are working for the town even if they are volunteering. The standards are just as high for them,” Colton said.

He said officials have been working with representatives from the town’s unions on the exact wording of a policy that would include a wide array of situations, such as what first responders can do with any cellphone photos they might take at an accident scene.

Still in draft form, it would cover postings to personal Facebook or Twitter pages, and would bar information available only to a town employee.

Colton said the general message is don’t do anything stupid, but “it takes a lot of words to say that. That’s why any policy is enacted. It’s about the one person who can’t exercise common sense.”

Elaine Cushman Carroll can be reached at elaine_carroll@msn.com.
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