FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks city Mayor Jim Matherly is using social media as a tool to solve problems across the city but also to confront people when he thinks they are showing disrespect.
In one instance, a social media post criticizing city snow plowing caused the mayor to contact the person to learn more about the problem. That resulted in him directing city employees to clear snow around a fire hydrant.
But in another case, a profane post on Facebook made by an elementary school teacher critical of the Fairbanks Police Department caused Matherly to confront the teacher. His communications director then sent a screen shot of the post to the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
And in another, Matherly said he was bothered by posts critical of President Donald Trump being made by an employee of Explore Fairbanks, the local tourism marketing organization that is funded in part through city bed tax revenue. He doesn’t think high-level employees of the visitors bureau should be showing disrespect to the president on social media, though he said he does not plan to contact the employer of the person who wrote the post he disagreed with.
Matherly said he was not trying to police speech on social media but that he is not shy about confronting people about what he perceives is their bad conduct.
Matherly said he has been calling out people for bad behavior since long before he became mayor, he said. He once confronted someone for littering. It didn’t go well. The person threw the trash on the ground again, and Matherly said he picked it up and threw it away himself. He has also called out a pregnant woman for drinking and smoking. The woman put out her cigarette, he said.
As a disc jockey for high school dances, Matherly said he discourages students from grinding and dirty dancing.
In December, two months after he won the mayor’s office, Matherly confronted a mother in the Fred Meyer parking lot after she had left her children unattended in an unlocked, idling vehicle. He asked the Police Department to counsel the woman and posted about the incident on social media, drawing both support and criticism.
The teacher's post
The Facebook post that bothered Matherly was made on a personal account by a teacher who is Matherly’s Facebook friend. It stated: “Ahhhhhhhhh (expletive) FPD.”
The screen shot of the post, along with the email from the Mayor’s Office to the school district, were obtained via public records requests.
The teacher was apparently frustrated about an unsolved homicide case and a stolen car, according to the post and comments that followed.
The News-Miner contacted the teacher for an interview, but the teacher did not respond.
Matherly said he does not usually contact an employer but that he believed the post by the teacher was different. The bad language and the bad-mouthing of the Police Department bothered him and made him wonder what the school district had in place for social media policies.
Matherly said, in interviews and through Teal Soden, his spokeswoman and executive assistant, that he acted on that post for several reasons: the post was public, from a teacher, that parents of students at the school district work for the Police Department, that the teacher may have children of law enforcement officers in class and that he had received complaints about the post.
Soden addressed the teacher’s Facebook post in an email to the school district spokeswoman, the president of the school board and one school board member.
“As many of our officers and city employees have children that attend school in the FNSBSD, there was some concern that a teacher, someone who is looked up to as a model for children, would choose this course of action to express her frustration,” Soden, who is married to a police officer, wrote. “As a FNSBSD parent myself, I can completely understand the concern. Mayor Matherly and I were wondering if you have any sort of social media policy that addresses this kind of issue?”
The email from the mayor’s office spurred at least one school board member to suggest at a public meeting that the district ought to review policies related to employee conduct. The member, Tom Bartels, said he has since looked at district policies and is satisfied with what is in place.
The teacher did nothing to violate the district’s social media policies, district spokeswoman Sharice Walker said. The teacher was informed of the complaint from Matherly’s office but was not reprimanded.
“One individual’s social media post does not represent the district,” Walker said in an email.
The school district has policies in place that protect the free speech of employees when they are not at work.
One policy states that school district employees have the same free speech right as any private individuals and may exercise those rights.
The district also has policies for social media use. According to the policy “volunteers and employees of the district have First Amendment rights to speak on matters of public concern.” It says that private social media comments should not be attributed to the school district nor should employees disclose private information about students.
“Employees should be mindful of their ongoing ethical obligations as educators and should not post any material that constitutes harassment, hate speech or libel,” according to the policy.
The social media post that irritated Matherly caused the school district to contact the police department to clarify that the individual’s comment does not represent the school district.
Matherly said he has known the teacher for a long time and that the teacher should “have a better filter.” He said he thinks the school district ought to know what the teacher said.
The city and social media
One of the reasons Matherly inquired to the school district about its social media policy is because the city is in the middle of developing its own policy.
The city’s draft policy is stricter than what the school district and the borough government have in place. According to the draft social media conduct when city employees are off-duty “has a reflection on the city of Fairbanks and the departments for which they work.”
If employees discloses that they work for the city on their private social media, “they take on the responsibility for representing the city in a professional manner from that period forward while still employed by the city.”
Employee posts on personal social media could be grounds for discipline under the draft policy. If approved, city employees could be disciplined for “commentary, content, or images that are defamatory, discriminatory, pornographic, proprietary, harassing, libelous, or that can create a hostile work environment.”
The policy in place for borough employees using their private social media accounts states they should have no expectation of privacy and that by disclosing their employer, employees are “tying your employment status with the borough to your social media activities.”
Borough employees are prohibited from using social media to criticize co-workers, according to the policy.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.