Social media ethics in Bellevue

Members of Bellevue Council are calling for a values-based ethics code and a social media policy in the wake of yet another incident that is beginning to look like the small town version of “Trump's Tweets.”

In his two years on council, current council president Tom Fodi has been chastised by colleagues several times for posting social media rants instead of discussing matters at council meetings or one-on-one with fellow elected officials. In the latest incident, Fodi has been accused of manufacturing a crisis regarding approval of the Bayne Park farmers market, encouraging residents to contact their elected officials to express their outrage, then claiming victory for an approval vote that was never in question.

At the pre-council meeting two weeks ago, council members Tom Hrynda and Linda Woshner questioned costs that were incurred by the borough during the farmers market season last year, and expressed concern about potential damage to the park from heavy traffic. It was reported that the borough paid $1,500 in labor costs to have someone from the borough's public works department set up a tent for the weekly event, which is sponsored by a private organization, the Bellevue Initiative for Growth and Revitalization (BIGr). Fodi previously served on the organization's board of directors.

Both Woshner and Hrynda made it clear at the time that they supported continuing the farmers market in 2018, and Hrynda said that council's parks and recreation committee, which he chairs, was working with the BIGr market committee to work out some of the issues. It was suggested that BIGr's own volunteers set up the organization's tent, and that the placement of the vendors be rotated to avoid damage to the grass in one area.

BIGr does not pay for use of the park, but did make a $500 donation to Bayne Library at the end of last season. Vendors are charged a fee to participate in the event.

Fodi's only comment at the time was that he would rather have people using the park than worry about the condition of the grass. He then took to social media to criticize the council members who asked questions, and encourage his followers to e-mail council in order to make sure the farmers market was approved. People immediately began protesting the supposed loss of the market, and Fodi never corrected their assumptions that members of council were trying to shut down the market. Two days later, Fodi posted about his colleagues, “Well the good news is that their tune has changed. The overwhelming support is causing them to back off their criticisms and challenges of the market.”

Fodi maintained, both at Tuesday's regular council meeting and later on-line, that he never said that some council members were trying to close the market, only that those asking questions were not being appropriately supportive of the event.

Fodi said that he was “inundated” with e-mails from concerned volunteers following discussion of the market at the committee and pre-council meetings.

Hrynda said that he also received many e-mails after social media posts by Fodi and at least one other council member, and that the e-mails all asked that the market not be canceled. He said that no one on the parks committee or any other council member with whom he had discussed the issue had ever considered voting any way but in favor of holding the market for another season.

He said that “getting people upset” was a waste of time and energy that could be better spent on real issues facing the borough.

“I think the people who start these rumors ought to grow up,” Hrynda said.

Woshner said that she was “an equal opportunity questioner,” who was known for keeping an eye on how borough funds are spent.

“I'm not a rubber stamp here, and I never will be,” she said.

She also noted that the market volunteers are not the only people who use the park, and said that she did not think it was too much to ask that the vendors be moved every couple weeks to mitigate damage to the grass.

Council member Anthony DiTullio spoke directly to Fodi, accusing him of stating on-line that council members were against the market, and in another post taking credit for saving the event. He said that this was just the latest in a series of fabricated conspiracies and attacks posted by Fodi. If Fodi continued such tactics, DiTullio said, “It's not going to go well for you.”

Council member Val Pennington said that he repeatedly heard from citizens that they wanted the drama and bickering in council chambers to stop, and wanted their elected officials instead to work together to benefit the borough. The “false controversy” he said Fodi created was unbecoming and unnecessary.

Pennington suggested that council adopt a values-based code of ethics. Unlike a law-based ethics code that deals with such issues as conflicts of interest, a value-based code would ask that elected officials pledge to adhere to the principles of honesty and integrity, and would include a social media policy that ensured that officials did not engage in “false narratives,” or personal attacks, that they showed respect for the differing opinions of colleagues, and that they immediately stop and publicly repudiate any such attacks and correct misinformation or false assumptions that were posted by social media followers.

Fodi remained silent following Pennington's request that a committee be formed to consider an ethics code. DiTullio accused him of “ignoring” the request, and called on Mayor Emily Marburger to form an ad hoc committee if Fodi would not do so.

Fodi again took to social media, this time to assert his rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. He stated: “I will vehemently oppose with every fiber of my being any attempts to limit that which is posted here.”