Councilmember resigns over new social media policy in Madison Heights

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 7, 2021


MADISON HEIGHTS — Madison Heights City Councilmember Kymm Clark has resigned from the City Council, following the adoption of a social media policy for elected officials.

The policy prohibits elected officials from restricting access to online groups when those groups feature the discussion of “city business,” such as recent developments or issues up for vote. The policy applies to all forms of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, message boards such as Reddit, and more.

According to Larry Sherman, the city attorney, courts have ruled that when an elected official is present in an online group discussing city business, that group becomes a public forum — and when that happens, the elected official must allow everyone access to the information there, or it may be in violation of their First Amendment rights.

“The courts want to promote open exchange of views, and it’s all under the umbrella of transparency in government,” Sherman said at a Sept. 27 meeting.

The city had received complaints that Clark had banned or removed individuals from a group on Facebook where she also serves as the administrator, engaging in what the complainants allegedly described as “viewpoint discrimination.”

Clark said that she had received threats, and banned the person or persons for her own safety.

Sherman further explained that the public can request social media posts by elected officials via Freedom of Information Act requests, also known as FOIA — another reason why the new policy was deemed necessary, in order to keep the city out of legal jeopardy.

“Those posts could be subject to discovery and disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act,” Sherman said, noting that the city would send FOIA requests to platform holders such as Facebook to fulfill those requests.

The Madison Heights City Council adopted the new policy, 5-2, at its regular meeting Sept. 27. Clark and Madison Heights City Councilmember Emily Rohrbach voted against it, requesting that it be tabled indefinitely until legal rewrites it to more clearly define “city business” versus “private use.” Rohrbach had described the social media policy as “fatally flawed” in its current form.

The day after the meeting, Clark decided to step down. The City Council accepted her letter of resignation at a special meeting held Sept. 30. She had been in the second full year of her first term.

At press time, the plan was for Sean Fleming to take Clark’s place, since the city charter dictates that council vacancies go to the next highest vote-getter from the last council election, which was Fleming in 2019. This would be for a partial term that ends in the fall of 2023.

Fleming is also one of the candidates running for a four-year seat in the election Nov. 2. If he prevails in his bid, he will receive a full term, and the vacancy will then go to the next highest vote-getter from this year’s Nov. 2 election, which would then be the last election from when his vacancy occurs.

‘A catalyst for change’
In an email interview following her resignation, Clark reflected on her time on the council.

“I got thrown in the deep end, in the very first couple of months (at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020),” Clark said. “The first major concern I was able to address was the toxic spill on I-696. The mayor at the time told the press there would be no comment from the city, due to ongoing litigation. I watched the community forums explode with concern and anger.

“Being from Flint myself, I understood their fear and frustration,” she continued. “So instead, we motivated neighbors to collect these concerns and bring them to EGLE (the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy) and GLWA (the Great Lakes Water Authority) weekly, so they could address them as they came.

“I was extremely impressed with their willingness to work alongside our community and grassroots organizations to solve the problem,” Clark said. “So many volunteers pulled together to be able to disseminate information to our residents in real time and to apply our resources to the remediation efforts instead of the potential for more litigation, or creating space for conspiracy theories. I truly believe this effort helped illustrate the technicalities of the spill, and developed the technology needed to safely remove the toxins from the site, while helping to relieve our community of the fear the whole incident caused.

Clark said she’s also “extremely proud” to have worked with the city’s Human Relations and Equity Commission.

“The progress we have been able to make in this first year, and the resistance we continue to receive really serves to illustrate the need for a commission that addresses the inequity within our community, and our policies as a city,” Clark said.

On the note of diversity, Clark said that the city finally raised an LGBTQ+ Pride Flag during her time on the council, “after three years of asking the council.” She has also cherished her time volunteering with the Madison Heights Food Pantry. She helped the group get started at the onset of the pandemic, helping secure space and shelving for the fledgling operation, which provides food and other supplies to anyone in need in the community.

“There are teams of people doing amazing things,” Clark said. “I would like to think I can inspire some, but the collaboration with my neighbors is the most inspiring to me.”

She said that social justice has always been her No. 1 focus, alongside the city’s development and engaging residents to help them stay involved in the process.

“We truly are becoming a city of progress. I think the founders would be proud that we have worked so hard in the past couple years to really live this example,” Clark said. “I am proud to have worked with and help develop some of the many organizations within the community, whose focus is to close disparity gaps and bring residents together. I truly believe this city is closer now and more engaged than ever before. Its potential grows every day.”

She said not much will actually change now that she’s off the council.

“I still plan to be active in my community and covering city government,” Clark said. “After my resignation, the support from hundreds of residents helped me realize that the impact I have had on this community is not defined by my position as an elected official — instead, the role served more as a catalyst for change. I believe my resignation really helped define where my skills would be most useful here in my community, and how more effective they are with me being a private citizen.

“To my supporters: Man, you all really showed up for me,” she said. “My inboxes are still filling with positive affirmations and promises to get involved. I am gonna be out here with the rest of you, still doing the thing. It would be foolish of us to believe all of the works that needs to be done can be done by seven people who sit behind a table a few hours a month. With limited resources at their disposal, a City Council is completely ineffective without the aid of the community.

“So get involved, get engaged and lift each other up,” Clark concluded. “We are right on track. I believe in all of you, just like you believe in me. More hands equals less work. Don’t forget to vote, and cultivate the progress you want to see in your city.”

The following is the language in the new social media policy for elected officials in Madison Heights, adopted by the Madison Heights City Council Sept. 27, as lifted from the meeting’s agenda packet.

Social Media Policy for Elected Officials:
In the interest of promoting an open, transparent government with the public and preventing any potential censorship of First Amendment protected forums and speech, the City Council of Madison Heights adopts this Social Media Policy for Elected Officials applicable to each Councilmember.

The term “social media” is defined as websites and digital applications where people create, share and exchange content and ideas through Internet networks and virtual communities. Examples of social media websites and applications include, but are not limited to, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube.

Any social media account that a Councilmember utilized for engaging with constituents or discussing matters related to City business will not restrict access in any capacity to the public, including blocking or banning people.

Councilmembers shall not use social media as a mechanism for conducting official City business and it will be used exclusively for informal communications with the public.

Councilmembers shall be mindful of the risks of social media communications in regard to Michigan’s Open Meeting Act and communication between members of the body on social media whether directly between one another or as part of a conversational thread among multiple parties should be strictly avoided.

Councilmembers’ social media posts in their capacity as an elected official are the property of the State of Michigan therefore should not be deleted and must be maintained in compliance with the City’s record retention schedule.

Councilmembers shall conduct themselves on social media with the same professionalism and decorum as if they were communicating with the public while attending a Council meeting.

Councilmembers shall not share non-public or confidential information related to City business and operations.

If a Councilmember makes a mistake or error in a communication, it shall be corrected as soon as the official is made aware of it.

Councilmembers shall not use official City of Madison Heights social media sites for campaigning purposes.

Councilmembers will abide by any rules or policies applicable to City employees when in engaging in the use of social media.     

A Councilmember may be censured by the body for violations of this Social Media Policy.