MOUNT DESERT — By a vote of 3-2, the board of selectmen last week decided that the town should have its own Facebook page.
By the same margin, they voted to enact controls that would not allow people to comment on the town’s Facebook postings or to indicate whether they “like” a posting.
Selectman Matt Hart said that of the 15 or 16 municipal Facebook pages he has seen, all of them allow “likes” and comments.
“We’re talking about social media. When you take the social aspect out of it, it becomes a lot like a static web page,” he said. “If you’re not allowing people to like or share items you’ve posted, it dramatically limits your audience; we’ll have fewer followers.
“You can go into the gas station for coffee in the morning and hear all sorts of rumors swirling around,” Hart said. “The power of Facebook and allowing comments and likes is you can reach more people and get information out there.”
Selectman Martha Dudman agreed, saying “Facebook is all about comments and connections. People like to do that. It makes them feel part of it, and I think we should give it a whirl.
“If it’s a disaster or we find that we are getting unpleasant comments and we’re uncomfortable with it, we can change the policy.”
But she and Hart were outvoted by board members John Macauley, Tom Richardson and Dennis Shubert. And Town Manager Durlin Lunt expressed concern about allowing people to post comments on the town’s Facebook page.
“Towns have a higher standard than a nonprofit or a business,” he said. “We’re the only ones who can be accused of censorship.”
He said he isn’t concerned about the prospect of people posting negative comments. Rather, he said, town officials could face a dilemma if someone posts a “non-truth” on the Facebook page and someone else demands that it be taken down.
“Is that likely?” Lunt asked. “No. But it’s possible enough that every training that I’ve had says be very, very careful because of the whole censorship issue.”
Hart said that shouldn’t be a concern because individuals would not be able to initiate postings on the town’s Facebook page; they could only comment on the town’s own postings.
“Our police and fire departments both allow comments and likes on their Facebook pages,” he said.
Like Lunt, Shubert said he wasn’t worried about people posting negative comments about town policies, services or projects.
“If the comments are overwhelmingly negative, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “The negative comments are not the problem; it’s what you’re doing [that people are commenting on] that’s the problem.”
“Oh, no!” Richardson interjected. “This town can’t allow discussions like that.”
He later described the decision to have a Facebook page as “opening a can of worms.”
With Richardson and Macauley dissenting, the board authorized Jackie Hewitt, the town’s economic development consultant, to “move forward with a Facebook page.”
Hewitt said it would be both a community forum and a marketing tool that increases the town’s visibility.
“It’s another online presence that we don’t have, and it’s free,” she said.
But she said it would cost about $1,200 a year to have an outside firm update the town’s Facebook page several times a week and to “collect, review and post approved items from community members.” She said there is money in this year’s economic development budget to cover that cost.
In her proposal for setting up a Facebook page for the town, Hewitt said the types of information to be posted would include basic town information and photos, announcements of community events, school and library notices and notices from town government on such things as road closures and trash pick-up schedule changes.
Hewitt said one “village contributor” from each of Mount Desert’s villages would be solicited to ensure that the Facebook page has information about all parts of town.