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County Restricts Public Input on Social Media


BRADENTON — Some Manatee County residents are not happy about a recent change to the Manatee County Government’s social media pages that restricts the public's ability to engage on posts made by the county. The county’s social media pages have traditionally allowed members of the public to leave public comments on posts, but in late December, the commenting feature was restricted on the county's Facebook, Instagram, and “X” (formerly known as Twitter) accounts.

The change to eliminate the public forum has not only impacted Manatee County Government’s main social media accounts but in the days following the change being made on the county’s main pages, additional sub-accounts of the organization were also impacted. The Manatee County Public Safety Department page, Manatee County’s Public Library System’s page, and the county’s Animal Welfare page have also all seen the public’s ability to comment on official posts restricted.

TBT was first made aware of the change when multiple residents reached our publication frustrated by what they felt was an act of “censorship”—some even questioning whether the action was legal.

Though some citizens may not be happy about the county restricting comments on its social media pages, doing so is within the organization’s legal rights.

When a local government or municipality creates an official social media page for communication with the public, whether or not the page qualifies as a “public forum” or merely a “government communication” depends on what ways the public can engage with the account.

If a government should decide to disallow any public comments on its social media, the posts created by the account would only qualify as “government communication,” much like the county’s website. It is only when public commenting is allowed that a “public forum” is created and laws related to public records and freedom of speech would apply.

According to the Florida ACLU, it is when a government or elected official selectively restricts specific individuals or groups from accessing or engaging with official social media accounts, while allowing others that ability, that social media censorship becomes a legal concern.

Citizens Cry Foul 

Despite the county’s action being lawful, several local residents decry the optics of the decision to disable comments on social media posts and question the motivation for the change.

Manatee County resident Lisa Hamilton is one of the many citizens who engage with her local government through its official social media pages. Hamilton might share a post with others, or she might leave a comment of praise, a question or suggestion, or sometimes, criticism. Hamilton tells TBT that she doesn’t support the restriction of the public’s ability to comment on official government posts.

“I think it’s obvious that by disabling comments, the people of Manatee County are speaking up, and the county must not like what it's hearing,” Hamilton wrote in response to our publication’s request for comment.

According to Hamilton, restricting comments on social media pages is, “just another example of how the county doesn’t care what the citizens think or want.”

Hamilton was referencing, in part, a previous action taken by Commissioner Van Ostenbridge in 2022 to suspend the public’s ability to provide call-in comments during BOCC meetings. A few months after Van Ostenbridge ended call-in public comments, Commissioner George Kruse’s motion to restore the feature failed to gain support from a majority of the board.

Citizen Glen Gibellina seemed to agree with Hamilton’s take on the change. Gibellina has a long history of engagement with his local government, from in-person public comments at board meetings, emailing his elected officials, commenting on social media, and even volunteering to serve three terms on the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board.

In an emailed response to TBT, Gibellina wrote, “From the discontinuation of the public call-in comments at BOCC meetings to no responses to our emails, and now the elimination of even constructive public comments on the county’s social media posts, the public’s trust has been eroded with our elected officials.”

Referencing previous campaign platforms, Gibellina added that most of the county’s current commissioners ran on promises of supporting public access and being open to public input. Similarly, Hamilton noted in her comments to TBT  that she is “hopeful residents are paying attention” and that, if so,  that will bare out “in the next election.”

County resident Charlene Kow suggested that by disabling commenting on its social media posts, the county is not only shutting out those citizens who are sharing displeasure or criticism but also taking away the ability of members of the public to provide positive feedback.

“I wanted to make a positive comment on one of the park or environmental posts from the county and found that commenting was turned off. This one-way nature of communication makes it clear the county isn’t interested in hearing from us on anything that they can’t control,” Kow wrote in response to our publication’s request for comment on the matter.

Kow frequently engages with her local government by attending BOCC meetings, through social media, and by attending town halls.

“It is unseemly, and it makes them appear thin-skinned. I think thin-skinned and cowardly are good descriptions for this behavior,” Kow added.

TBT attempted to reach the county for a statement or explanation behind the recent change to restrict public comments on its social media pages. Neither County Administrator Charlie Bishop nor the county’s PIO Bill Logan, responded to our emailed requests.

Other Local Government Pages

Through a review of social media pages administrated by other local government agencies, TBT was able to identify several official social media accounts belonging to county constitutional offices or city governments.

The City of Bradenton, the City of Holmes Beach, the City of Anna Maria, the City of Bradenton Beach, and even the City of Longboat Key each administrate Facebook pages geared at communicating with the public. While the City of Bradenton Beach’s Facebook page did not appear to post as frequently as the other local city pages, all of the pages belonging to local city governments allowed the public  to comment on their posts.

TBT was unable to locate any social media page belonging to the City of Palmetto. However, there is an official Facebook page of the Palmetto Police Department. Although its most recent public post was made in December, commenting on the Palmetto Police Department’s posts was not restricted.

Each of the local city police departments reviewed by TBT administrates Facebook pages—the Bradenton Police Dept., the Holmes Beach Police, the Anna Maria Police Dept., the Bradenton Beach Police, and the Longboat Key Police—and each of those pages also provided the public with the ability to engage through post comments.

The county’s constitutional offices of the Supervisor of Elections, County Clerk of Court and Comptroller, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department, and the office of the Tax Collector also each administrate official Facebook pages, and each of those also provides an open comments section on posts.

The School District of Manatee County also maintains an official Facebook page, and the public can engage with the district by leaving comments on its social media posts. 

Looking at other county governments within the Tampa Bay region (Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota) each of these government organizations maintain official Facebook pages. Manatee County Government is the only county government within the region that has opted to restrict the public from commenting on its posts. 

Facebook Pages from Across the State

Looking statewide at county government Facebook accounts, TBT found that Manatee County Government is not the only county government in Florida that has opted to restrict commenting on its social media posts—though it appears to be the largest county (by population) to do so.

TBT was able to locate official Facebook pages from 55 of Florida’s 67 counties. Six of Florida’s smaller counties—with populations less than 50,000—did not appear to operate social media accounts at all.

Of the 55 counties with a social media presence, 48 had official Facebook pages of the government organization or its BOCC, and all of these pages allowed the public to comment on page posts. Seven counties of the total 55 did not have a main government organization Facebook page but did have official pages for public safety, emergency management, or another government department—each of those pages also allowed the public to comment on its social media posts.

In total, TBT was able to identify six county governments of the state’s 67, which operated official government Facebook pages while opting to restrict the community’s ability to engage by commenting on its page's posts; Gilchrist County, Highlands County, Jefferson County, Monroe County, Sumter County, and Manatee County.

According to the most up-to-date data available through the United States Census Bureau’s website, Manatee County had the largest estimated population at roughly 430,000. The next largest county of the six was Sumter Couty, with an estimated population of just under 145,000, followed by Highlands County, with roughly 106,000 estimated residents. The other three counties of the six identified had populations of less than 100,000 with the smallest (Jefferson County) having only 15,042 residents.

Manatee County and Social Media

The initiative to begin utilizing social media pages for communication with the community was spear-headed by the county’s former Public Information Officer, Nicholas Azzara. According to information available on the Manatee County Government Facebook page’s "about" section, the page was created in Oct. 2010. Subsequent organization department pages were created for Public Safety, Libraries, and Animal Welfare across the two years following the launch of the county government’s main social media account.

Hired in 2008, Azzara was the first county employee to carry the title of “Public Information Officer.” Azzara also served as the organization’s Information Outreach Manager whose duties included oversight of the county’s website, its public access channel (MGA-TV), and the organization’s social media accounts. In 2021, Azzara accepted a position with the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he worked as the Communications Manager until 2023 when he separated from the county. These days, Azzara runs his own public relations and marketing firm, Azzara Communications.

TBT reached Azzara by phone to learn how the county’s social media accounts were implemented. Azzara described how in the beginning, the effort to establish social media pages where the county could reach the public in a new way began with consulting the county attorney and county administration.

According to Azzara, the county attorney at the time was not supportive of any county social media pages creating a public forum by allowing commenting on its posts. Azzara explained the opposition by the attorney was rooted in concerns over potential First Amendment issues and public records retention. 

But Azzara said he believed strongly in hearing from the public, good or bad, and ultimately his opinion that commenting by the public should be allowed was supported by county administration.

“I pushed hard to allow commenting for several reasons, including government accessibility and transparency. We wanted to create a conversation with our residents, not just speak to them,” Azzara explained.

With the administration's support, Azzara said he worked closely with the County Attorney's Office to craft Manatee County's first social media procedure in 2010. The procedure, said Azzara, set guidelines that county staff would adhere to when creating and maintaining social media pages, including safety requirements to ensure each social media page was established for the right purpose and that it was overseen by the right person(s). According to Azzara, the procedure he helped establish was still in use through 2023 when he parted ways with the county.

TBT also spoke over the phone to Manatee County’s former administrator, Ed Hunzeker, and former deputy administrator, Karen Windon. Both Hunzeker and Windon were working in county administration in 2010 when the first Facebook page of the organization was launched.

Windon says she recalls the county’s initial “dipping its toes” into social media. The former administrative official said the initiative was led by the local government’s desire to find “new ways to connect to the public.” Windon told TBT that she recalled the county attorney’s aversion to official social media accounts permitting open commenting from the public on its posts.

“Is public comment something that will help the community, or create challenges? We discussed these things, but we talked about them from a perspective of the community and not necessarily the government,” Windon recalled.

The final outcome of those considerations, says Windon, was a determination “that it was important to allow the public to let their government know how they felt.”

Former administrator Hunzeker had similar recollections as to his administration’s overall support for allowing commenting on its social media accounts.

“Even when members of the public express a criticism, those can sometimes include feedback worth consideration. Social media provided another venue to hear from the public, good or bad,” Hunzeker suggested.

In a follow-up email to TBT Azzara emphasized that while disabling comments on its social media accounts may not be illegal, “you don't have to be an expert to understand that it’s simply not a good look for any company, especially one with a large, loyal following that's already used to being able to leave comments.”

“What's more,” added Azzara, “is that the county is an organization whose reputation has taken an absolute beating over the past three years, and if you want to win the public back and earn some of the trust that's been eroded, disabling Facebook comments is unquestionably the wrong way to go about things.”

TBT emailed each of the county’s commissioners to inquire whether they were aware of the change to the organization’s social media pages, whether commissioners were consulted, or if they supported the change. Only one commissioner responded to our inquiry.

In an email, Commissioner George Kruse told TBT that he only recently was made aware of the change after it was brought to his attention. The change, Kruse wrote, was not a board decision and never appeared on a BOCC meeting agenda.

“I honestly don’t know who made the decision or why the decision was made,” wrote Kruse. “While there’s nothing, as far as I’m aware, requiring a comments section, I do think it’s bad policy.”

Kruse’s email continued, “While the comment sections of any social media site do tend to be breeding grounds for negativity, that does not mean they don’t serve a purpose. There are those in the public that utilize the comment section as their primary means of engaging their government. I’d hate to lose that channel of genuine communication. We can’t keep talking about transparency while systematically shutting down the public a little more each passing day.”

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter and investigative journalist for The Bradenton Times covering local government news. She can be reached at dawn.kitterman@thebradentontimes.com.


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  • sandy

    If I was a betting person, I would bet that KVO (who was the one who stopped call-in to meetings) got with his yes man Bishop, who as administrator, and directed him to have the department to disable the comments. So much for transparency and allowing for input from the constituents. We already know he doesn't listen to public comments even at the actual board meetings. Also look how many times things are added to the agenda after the comment deadline so things get through without any public comment on record.

    Saturday, January 20 Report this

  • Dianna

    Except for Commissioner Kruse- who is the only commissioner interacting with the public on a regular basis, commissioners no longer answer their e-mail, phones, they do not engage with the public in a respectful manner at commissioner meetings, nor do they acknowledge written public comment. Only their non-elected, taxpayer funded, “political” aide interacts with the public. Government accessibility and accountability will never happen with these 6 commissioners. With the exception of Kruse commissioners do not wish to have any sort of conversations with the public outside of the one-way interaction they are currently having, they have openly stated at meetings they do not want phone-in public comment because they do not want to hear from the public. The public needs to start posting their comments to the agenda of the regular board of county commission meetings under future agenda. While 6 commissioners will continue to disregard, the public at large will be able to view along with the media and our lone representative Kruse.

    Saturday, January 20 Report this

  • David Daniels

    This policy has Kevin VanOstenbridge’s fingerprints all over it - only because his co-conspirator campaign manager Anthony Pedicini is experienced enough in slime to wear gloves. Their goal is to turn the County’s social media pages into re-election campaign propaganda. They post absurdities like Manatee is tough on development, or that Animal Services is a happy healthy place for animals and volunteers. Their only hope for reelection is an uninformed electorate. They are afraid of smart, well-informed citizens like Lisa Hamilton, Charlene Kow, and Glen Gibellina, who follow what they do, not what they say. Charlie Bishop, the like-minded deputy of disgraced former Administrator Scott Hopes, shares Hopes’ and VanOstenbridge’s hostility to transparency and lack of integrity - the perfect qualifications for corruption. He should have been asked to follow Hopes out the door. This new social media censorship, while abhorrent, should come as no surprise coming from a commissioner (KVO) that prohibits citizens from making public comments by phone (it’s only 30 minutes).The same commissioner that intentionally avoids compliance with public records law by refusing to use a county cell phone to conduct county business. And an administration that continues to terminate animal services volunteers for speaking up about shelter conditions (another one was fired a few days ago). They are using a public platform to benefit their campaigns, hoping uninformed voters won’t figure out they have rubber stamped the clear cutting that is destroying Manatee county. VOTE THEM OUT

    Saturday, January 20 Report this

  • Removetheplantburglar






    Sunday, January 21 Report this

  • kmskepton

    Nothing says, "We don't care about our residents," quite like removing our ability to comment. Oh, and removing the ability to call in with citizen input during meetings. Oh yeah, and not listening even when citizens turn out en masse to oppose changing wetland buffers or calling to remove now-gone Baugh after vaccinegate. Nothing new here.

    Sunday, January 21 Report this