SCARBOROUGH— Town councilors in Scarborough said they don’t want their ability to participate in political activity limited or have their free speech about candidates and elections squashed.

On Thursday, Oct. 16 the Scarborough Town Council voted to move forward with amending a rule in the Town Council Rules & Policies that prohibits council members from using their authority as an official to influence an election.

The rule currently states: “No town councilor shall participate in any political activity which would be in conflict or incompatible with the performance of his/ her official functions and duties for the town.”

A subsection of the rule adds that this does not take away a councilor’s right to participate in elections as a private citizen.

Councilor Katy Foley said that this rule was a bit unclear when it came to where and when a council member was a private citizen or representing the town.

“The grey matter or part that’s ambiguous is the social media — or even if I’m at the post office, am I Katy the citizen or Katy the town councilor or Katy real estate agent?” she said. “People have a hard time taking that hat off of you.”

With some council members using social media and Facebook, it can be hard for residents to determine what is a private or public page, said Councilor Paul Johnson.

In 2017, Foley wrote a post on Facebook about this policy, which she had been accused of violating when she had posted support on social media for two candidates.

“As I said before I clearly did not believe I was violating the policy or I would not have done so in the first place. That is not who I am,” the post said. “I can acknowledge and respect that they may have a different opinion and perhaps they thought it was poor judgment on my part — that is all within their right, but that does not make it a violation simply because they didn’t like it.”

During the public comment portion of the Oct. 16 meeting, resident Paula O’Brien said she was unhappy with certain council members’ comments and posts about candidates that she had seen online.

“I have no problem with freedom of speech regarding any sitting town councilor endorsing or saying to vote for a particular candidate of their choice,” she said. “I do, however, find it problematic when a sitting town councilor, a representative of our town, makes derogatory, bitter remarks about a candidate, any candidate, on social media. Councilor page or personal page, it doesn’t make it right.”

Councilor Jean-Marie Caterina, who said that she has no problem being politically active, noted that this rule may have been written for a previous council that could not be respectful during official business.

“I’m way familiar with the late ‘90s, early 2000s, when we had a council that was way out of control and this is why it came up,” Caterina said. “I will support removing it, but I will add a caveat that we are assuming that future councilors are going to be able to behave themselves appropriately.”

An example of inappropriate behavior would be if, during a council meeting, a member began bashing another candidate or brought signs in favor of a certain candidate, said Foley.

The current policy doesn’t make much sense to Councilor Don Hamill, who said that it clashed with the purpose of being a council member.

“When I read this particular policy, it kind of struck me as odd,” he said. “We’re elected politicians and we should be political. Your choice might not be to use social media and yours might be to. It’s that mix that makes it all work. I think original intent of the policy was to restrict behavior behind this table, but I don’t think that was clear.

“We’re in the middle of a campaign,” Hamill continued. “I think it’s right and correct for us to clear the books of this language and get it behind us and start working on our own common sense rather than a rule that may have been well-intended but was not well-constructed and didn’t seem like it had ever really applied. I think we need to get stuff off the books that was never really applied.”

All council members, with the exception of William Donovan, who was absent, said that they favored removing the rule, which will be discussed and voted on during the next meeting.

With the Nov. 5 election approaching, Foley, who is not running for another term, said that she wanted the council to move forward with this two-year long issue so that it wasn’t still around for the future council.

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