The city of Edina has a state-of-the-art website and routinely uses Twitter and e-mail lists to communicate with residents. But it doesn't have a Facebook page. Neither does its larger neighbor, Bloomington.
They are among the Minnesota cities that have hesitated to join Facebook, the mammoth social media site that recently topped Google as the most visited place on the Internet. Unnerved by Facebook's freewheeling nature, cities that have held back from joining the rush to the website are asking questions that in many cases don't yet have definitive answers.
Do they need to keep copies of Facebook pages as public records? Is it censorship to remove an obscene comment? If City Council members join a discussion on a city's Facebook page, does that mean the give and take has suddenly become a meeting subject to the requirements of the state's open meeting law?
"I have had a lot of reservations," said Jennifer Bennerotte, Edina's communications director. "The law has not caught up with social media."
The mood is less cautious just up Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park, where Jamie Zwilling runs a city Facebook page that has attracted 1,700 fans in its first six months. The city's communications coordinator answers users' questions under the moniker "City of St. Louis Park, Minnesota." When critical comments are posted, they're left alone in the interest of open dialogue.
Tom Grundhoefer, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities, said dealing with social media is "a tough one" for cities. So far, he said, court rulings that would help clarify the law are scanty.
"I don't think the issues are insurmountable in any way, but it's a new thing," he said. "Everybody's figuring it out."
Pushing to engage citizens
Facebook is attractive to cities because it has an estimated 350 million users, many of whom visit daily. People who become fans of their city's Facebook page get city updates that pop up each time they log on, just as friends' updates do.
Facebook users skew young, which appeals to cities that may have trouble connecting with that demographic. Fans of St. Louis Park's Facebook page are mostly female, with 37 percent age 24 or younger and 27 percent between 25 and 34.
"There's a real shift going on in how people receive information," Zwilling said. "The more we can push information where people are at, and provide a back and forth, the better engaged in the civic discussion they will be."
Cities with Facebook pages range from Minneapolis, with thousands of fans, to tiny communities like Montrose, population 1,143, with 56 Facebook fans. City pages tend to feature some of the same information that's on city websites, like announcements about pothole repair and park programs.
Others are more active. St. Paul links to a "flood cam" that shows a new picture of the level of the Mississippi River every 30 seconds. Last winter Richfield posted photos of the aftermath of a propane explosion, prompting thank-yous from residents who wondered what the noise was.
City workers who run the pages said they're learning as they go.
"It's kind of new territory," said Scott Bradley, Richfield's communications coordinator. "With social media, it all moves so fast... I make the posts and update it and check it every day I'm here. A lot of it is just common sense."
People must be fans of Richfield and St. Louis Park's Facebook pages to post comments. Bradley and Zwilling said obscene or defamatory posts have not been a big problem, but if they pop up they're removed. Zwilling said the ability to have a dialogue is what makes Facebook useful.
"It's no different than anyone coming in [City Hall's] front door and asking a question," Zwilling said.
Concerned that an interactive Facebook page would take time to monitor, Blaine created a page where people can't comment. Links drive users to the city's website.
"We're limited in staff, but we wanted a Facebook presence," said Heidi Andrea, the city's Web coordinator. "We wanted to make it as simple as possible and get as much information out as possible ... we haven't worried about what's going on [there]."
Unlike other cities, St. Louis Park does regular electronic backups of its Facebook page in case they fall under laws requiring government to retain records.
"We are operating under the assumption that we do need to retain this information," Zwilling said. "We are treating them just like other electronic messages."
League of Cities attorney Grundhoefer said "95 percent [of the content on a Facebook page] is not going to be the kind of things you keep under records retention. You only have to keep government records and documentation of official government acts." But he said that because the law isn't crystal clear yet, some cities are saving screen shots from Facebook just to be safe.
He advises City Council members to avoid group discussions on a city Facebook page. If a quorum forms and there was no legal notice of a meeting, it could violate the state's open meeting law.
Cities do have the right to remove obscene or defamatory comments. "But obviously you can't censor stuff," he said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380