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Huntington Beach residents should now be able to comment on their city council members’ official social media without fear of getting blocked or having their comments deleted under a new set of rules.
“This policy really lays out what it is that I think we expect of our public officials and it also starts to shield us from liability because I don’t want to spend the city’s money because somebody
limited somebody’s freedom of speech,” said Huntington Beach City Councilman Dan Kalmick during Tuesday’s meeting.
Councilmembers voted 6-0 on a new policy regulating what council members and appointed commissioners can do with their official social media accounts used for city business.
Councilman Erik Peterson was absent.
Huntington Beach isn’t the first to grapple with the issue of council members deleting comments and blocking people
Last summer, former Irvine Mayor Christina Shea was sued for blocking people on Facebook and deleting comments that criticized her opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as defunding the police.
Many constituents argued her actions violated their first amendment rights.
There are multiple exceptions however on what comment officials can restrict and the policy itself doesn’t have a binding effect on officials.
City Attorney Michael Gates had concerns with the language of the policy as it relates to the California Public Records Act, the Brown Act and how exactly officials can define an official social media account.
The council made minor amendments to ease some of his concerns, like revising some of the policy language.
Huntington Beach is not the first city to take up such a policy.
San Juan Capistrano officials adopted their policy in February, which puts restrictions on how city officials can communicate with each other online about official business.
And Shea isn’t the only Orange County politician who has been scrutinized for blocking comments.
In Huntington Beach, one resident called out Councilman Tito Ortiz for allegedly deleting her comments and restricting her on social media.
“To the rest of the council, I ask how long does the list of your colleague’s wrongdoings have to grow before you remove him as Mayor Pro Tem and censure him. Is it after he costs the city thousands of dollars in legal costs like what happened in Irvine,” she said.
“Should I take that to mean that I’m required to take legal action to be heard?”
The resident also said Ortiz blocked her on his city email, which he denied.
Kalmick later said Ortiz did in fact block her email.
“She forwarded over the block bounce message that she got and I went through the technical code on the back end of it and it showed that it was actually blocked by your personal spam filter within the city’s system,” Kalmick said.
Ortiz has been turning some heads with some of his social media posts on masks and vaccines.
Some of his behavior on and off social media regarding masks almost got Ortiz’s title of Mayor Pro Tem stripped away from him by his fellow council members.
One commenter called out the councilman’s posts as “misinformation.”
The new policy does not dictate what a city official can post, but is aimed at stopping them from deleting comments.
“We’re not looking to regulate the content of what’s posted. We’re really, in this proposed policy framework, only looking to establish First Amendment protections,” City Manager Oliver Chi said. “Every member of the Council has and every appointed official has the right to their own opinion and their right to post what they feel is their truth.”
Kalmick criticized Ortiz for his social media posts.
“I personally have a pretty huge problem with your social media platform. I think it opens the city to a pretty large liability,” Kalmick said.
“You’re commenting on vaccine policy, on COVID policy, which is something that falls under the purview of our city council because we have a vaccination program and it can be confusing to folks if you’re operating and making those comments as the Mayor Pro Tem of the city or you’re making those comments as Tito Ortiz,” he said.
Ortiz said that his Instagram is a personal account while his Facebook is his official account.
“I’ll be able to block people on Instagram, but not on Facebook,” Ortiz said. “I can have my freedom of speech as far as the vaccine, as far as COVID and my sides of it. And you guys have your sides of it. It’s your choice.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.