The mayor of San Luis Obispo has halted her use of social media after facing public criticism for blocking followers, some of whom have openly disagreed with her on issues.
Instead of Facebook and Instagram, Mayor Heidi Harmon currently is using group e-mails to reach constituents, saying in a Jan. 14 note that she’s pausing “all social media to focus on what’s really important right now: our city and our citizens. Our newsletter will be the main way we can all stay connected.”
Harmon had been active on the two platforms in recent months before suddenly quitting her accounts, the records of which must be accessible to the public if city business is conducted on them, according to City Attorney Christine Dietrick.
Of late, Harmon mostly had been using her social media platforms to update the community on issues, such as public health, city events and decisions, and diversity and inclusion.
Often, Harmon includes messages such as audio transcripts from Martin Luther King Jr. or invites to events such as the recent SLO Virtual Community Forum on public priorities.
But Harmon set up blocks — which prevented some of her followers from being able to see or comment on her posts — before removing those restrictions in December to comply with access laws.
A public records response to a community member’s request for information shows Harmon blocked at least 24 people on her Instagram account and more than 50 people on Facebook.
“She decided to stop her accounts because of the unrelenting negativity and the trolls who not only comment on her feeds directly, but also have made toxic remarks to her supporters,” said Christine Dietrick, the city’s attorney. “We all have a lot of very important, and time-consuming city work to do around COVID, social change, climate action, and a thousand other things, and she felt petty social media battles were a wasteful distraction.”
But two people who were blocked by Harmon — one of them local radio host Adam Montiel — contend that Harmon shut off people who disagreed with her on issues.
“There’s no reason or excuse to break the law (around social media use), especially those regarding free speech,” Montiel said. “She should welcome different opinions, not actively and illegally shut them down in public forums used for city business.”
Harmon didn’t respond to multiple requests from The Tribune for comment.
A scan of Facebook shows three accounts associated with Harmon that aren’t currently being used; her “heidismighty” Instagram account announces her departure and advisement that people can sign up for her newsletters on her website.
Public complaints about SLO mayor’s social media use
Dietrick said that she has seen numerous comments attacking Harmon’s physical appearance and thinly veiled physical threats against her, some of which Harmon has shared previously with The Tribune, such as a past meme of a bus appearing to travel toward Harmon on its way to hitting her.
“There are kids and grandparents who support her, and they don’t need to see things like that, or face hateful attacks themselves, which the mayor was becoming very concerned about,” Dietrick said.
But Montiel, the host of “Up & Adam in the Morning” on Coast 104.5 and “Cork Dorks” on Krush 92.5, said Harmon blocked him in March for posting a comment he made highlighting best practices on proper social distancing and public health and safety protocols.
That was in response to a photograph Harmon shared that included two senior citizens seated together, he said.
“I was just pointing out something that I thought needed correcting about social and physical distancing,” Montiel said. “… It’s true she blocks people for literally just disagreeing with her, correcting her, or really, anything she wants to. And it turns out, that’s illegal.”
Montiel said in a recent letter to the city that his comments have always complied with the page’s code of conduct and he can “only assume I was blocked due to the perceived critical nature of my comments.”
Montiel added: “Her tag line is, ‘We can do hard things.’ I guess we will see how hard it would be for the mayor to own up, apologize, and say, ‘What I did (by blocking people on social media) wasn’t in the spirit of good community or unity. It was wrong, it was illegal, and I’m sorry.’”
Another community member, Bob Shanbrom, who has openly disagreed with Harmon and city officials on questions around water supply and building capacity, also was blocked by the mayor and told The Tribune he has been “snubbed” by Harmon when he tries to talk to her.
“It’s been mind-blowing to have had both (former President Trump) and a mayor who attack, either aggressively or passively-aggressively, those who simply disagree with them,” Shanbrom said. “There is nothing more highly valued in the Constitution than the value of peaceful, vigorous dissent.”
The city has repeatedly defended the adequacy of its water supply and future housing plans in response to concerns by members of the public, citing data and its multiple water resources, though critics say SLO officials aren’t sufficiently accounting for the effects of climate change on potential water shortages.
“Heidi’s snubbing behavior is so childish, and her marginalization of myself or any citizen deserves condemnation from all those who believe in democracy,” Shanbrom said. “What public servants must remember is that once elected, they serve everyone, not just those who voted for them or support them or agree with them.”
Shanbrom added: “Heidi seems to believe that unity is when everyone agrees with her, when, in fact, unity is when everyone agrees to be governed.”
Case law supports open access
Dietrick acknowledged that case law has supported open public access to elected officials who maintain social media accounts, though there’s some gray area around the use of personal accounts versus those created for official business.
Dietrick said because Harmon was regularly sharing information about city business, she was required to unblock accounts of those who followed her on Instagram and Facebook in December.
The city released screenshots from her phone of those blocked, as part of the public records request.
But Montiel said he was suspicious of whether Harmon was fully compliant with the public records release, saying he believes there were more blocked accounts than Harmon initially revealed.
That’s based on how Harmon’s phone Instagram screenshots were displayed, showing some partial images of listed users that don’t seem to connect completely or sequentially from one page to the next, indicating there may be gaps and there could have been more people restricted than the mayor revealed.
“If she can submit dishonest or incomplete evidence from her city phone and the city doesn’t catch it, what assures residents that anything that is requested of her can be perceived as truthful and complete?” Montiel said. “What does it say about her intent when she’s uninterested in using social if she can’t illegally do it the way she has been, that she’d rather just not do it at all?”
Harmon stopped using her social media accounts earlier this month, although the exact date is unclear.
“It’s a loss to the community, and perhaps to the trolls that want to attack her, that she has left social media,” Dietrick said. “But she has no obligation to talk to people who just want to criticize her. And, I’ll point out, voters have a say in which mayor they want to see every two years. That’s how democracy works.”
Public engagement options
Dietrick said that social media is an evolving area of law, and the blend of personal and public use has blurred the lines.
SLO is a city of 45,000 residents, Dietrick added, and because Harmon receives a flood of information, responding to everyone who contacts her in general would be overwhelming and sidetrack her from her work as an elected official.
Residents have more formal ways of communicating with elected officials, as well. For example, they may submit public comments to be read aloud or verbally address the council at regular meetings, which is currently done remotely amid coronavirus precautions.
Harmon previously told The Tribune she has taken breaks from social media, including after a man demanding to see the mayor jumped over the front desk counter at City Hall in January 2020 and pushed to the ground a male city staff member who tried to stop him, according to Dietrick.
Harmon said the man had a strange romantic fixation on her, and he was restrained by City Manager Derek Johnson, who pinned him until police arrived.
At the time, Harmon expressed concern for both her safety and that of the city’s staff and cited a New York Times article reporting data that female mayors are twice as likely as male ones to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence.
“I have been taking breaks from social media,” she added in a January 2020 Facebook post, “and I am torn because my greatest hope is to inspire all of you to feel empowered and to take constructive action to make the world a better place.”