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Municipal computer policies evolving
[December 26, 2010]

Municipal computer policies evolving

Dec 26, 2010 (Cape Cod Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- In Bourne, a firefighter is awaiting possible discipline for allegedly posting negative statements about the town on his Facebook page.

In Mashpee, two town employees were fired for, among other things, using town computers for online shopping.

And last year, the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office's technology policy received an overhaul after some employees were found using department e-mail addresses to send and receive pornography.

As technology changes, towns are faced with the need to update policies that address employees' computer and Internet use.

"It's been emerging for a few years now as we become reliant on computers " and as residents want their cities and town halls to be more technology-oriented," said Pat Mikes, communications director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Mashpee's IT policy was amended Nov. 15, Town Manager Joyce Mason said.

'Non-business activities' Though the two employees' computer abuse was only "one of many" factors in their firings, it prompted the town to take another look at a policy that had not been updated for several years, Mason said.

Mashpee's guidelines prohibit employees, volunteers and elected and appointed officials from using town-owned technology "to engage in non-business activities," including playing games and distributing chain letters.

Employees are allowed to use computers for brief messages to family members and for scheduling appointments, the policy states, but all other personal business must be done during non-working time.

Social networking sites are not specifically prohibited, but Mason said they are included in the list of "non-business activities." The Barnstable County Sheriff's Office amended its technology policy in late August 2009 after the Cape Cod Times reported some employees were using the department's e-mail system to send and forward messages containing pornography.

After the incident, the department's IT policy was revised to make the action subject to discipline, sheriff's office spokesman Roy Lyons said.

Logging on to any computer in the sheriff's department prompts a screen to pop up explaining the department's policy, Lyons said. And, he said, only authorized computers have Internet access, which must be limited to business-related use.

The town of Bourne changed its policy not because of any specific issues with employee use, but because "it just needed to be done," Town Administrator Thomas Guerino said.

"When you see the screen change all of a sudden when you walk by, you know that you really need to address this," he said.

Nixing social networking In September, Bourne amended its information technology policy for employees to prohibit the use of websites such as Facebook, MySpace and on work computers and on town-owned cell phones. Employees are allowed, however, to use a computer in the break room for some personal use as long as it's not to access inappropriate or illegal material, he added.

While Bourne recently revised its policy for at-work computer use, there is no policy for visiting or posting to social networking websites off the job, despite a pending case in which a firefighter could lose his job over alleged inappropriate Facebook postings.

Bourne Fire Department employee Richard Doherty is awaiting determination of whether comments and photos he placed on his Facebook page violated the department's code of conduct. He faced a disciplinary hearing earlier in the fall and awaits Guerino's final decision, later this month or in early January, on whether to discipline or terminate him.

After Doherty's fate is decided, the town could look into creating a social networking policy, Guerino said.

"It will be a good test case," he said.

It can be "a balancing act" to create a policy that covers how employees conduct themselves responsibly outside of work while still respecting their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, said James Lampke, a Hingham attorney and executive director of the Massachusetts City Solicitors and Town Counsel Association.

But many towns are considering such policies, because tools like Facebook and Twitter "can create issues" if employees post derogatory statements about another employee or the town they work in, or present themselves inappropriately, Lampke said.

'Inappropriate statements' The Falmouth School Department added a social networking policy in October in response to a 2007 incident in which special education teaching assistant Keath Driscoll was fired for posts on his MySpace page that included curse words and sexually charged material.

While the school department had a computer usage policy at the time of Driscoll's firing, there is now a policy specific to social networking websites, schools Supt. Marc Dupuis said.

The policy prohibits activities such as teachers "friending" current students and posting items with sexual content or images that show the use of drugs or alcohol.

And sometimes, towns' codes of conduct can take over where technology policies end, Lampke said.

Many codes of conduct, even if they do not specifically address social networking websites, inform employees that "inappropriate statements, whether done in the workplace or outside the workplace, could under certain circumstances have serious consequences," he said.

In Barnstable, for example, the code of conduct requires employees to demonstrate "the highest standard of personal integrity " in all of their public activities," including outside of work, according to William Cole, director of human resources.

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