Public officials owe their constituents transparency on social media

 Rich Negrin speaks during a debate among the eight candidates for Philadelphia district attorney held at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy on March 23, 2017. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rich Negrin speaks during a debate among the eight candidates for Philadelphia district attorney held at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy on March 23, 2017. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In the past, reaching an elected official took some formality or a press credential. Today, all it takes is a well-crafted tweet.

Social media has been an integral part of politics — from mobilizing the Arab Spring to pressuring Uber to take a stand on the Muslim ban. After all, it is the president of the United States’ favorite means of communication. Here in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney commented on the Rittenhouse ‘wall ban’ during a Twitter chat. Twitter is a tool for the community to lift up its voice as well as for elected officials to communicate their message.

So I was surprised that District Attorney candidate Rich Negrin chose to block me on Twitter after I wrote an op-ed for NewsWorks criticizing him. I did not insult Negrin or use profanity. I just disagreed with a political decision that he made — accepting the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Taken aback, I did what I always do: I tweeted. From responses, I learned that blocking the social media accounts of critical citizens is not a move unique to Negrin but a staple of Philadelphia politicians.

Business as usual

When the Philadelphia soda tax came into effect, Patrick Wajda, noticed that milk in his local Walmart was more expensive than usual. He asked a store employee about the price increase. The employee said that they had to increase prices of other products to keep the price of soda unchanged.

Wajda tweeted at Mayor Jim Kenney to share his frustration with the increase in prices. In return, the Department of Revenue account responded saying that milk was not taxed. Wajda tried to explain that, although they promised that the consumer will not pay, prices did go up even if the goods are not directly taxed, sarcastically adding, “I think they assumed distributors wouldn’t pass the cost to consumers because King Kenney said so.”

kenney-blockedMayor Kenney blocked Wajda’s Twitter account along with another account that was involved in the conversation.

“Our politicians don’t feel like they actually have to listen to us or communicate with us. They just ignore us. They do whatever they want,” Wajda said.

Mark Dobbins, a consultant and Philadelphia resident, has been blocked by a few Philadelphia politicians, among them the current D.A., indicted on federal corruption charges, Seth Williams. “I think I put a tweet up that said ‘If you had any honor or conviction, resign, but you have neither,’” said Dobbins of the tweet that got him blocked by Williams.

Dobbins believes that it is much easier to contact representatives via social media than any other way. As someone who frequently tweets at elected officials, he says, “If they don’t have anything to say, they should ignore it. Blocking is childish and short-sighted.”

‘It’s a hard town’

“If you are running for office, you are expected to answer certain questions,” said Asa Khalif, Philly native and Black Lives Matter activist who came out in support of Larry Krasner in the D.A. race. “If you think that you can make these questions go away by simply blocking the person who is asking, you are wrong. The question is not going to go away.”

Khalif admits that, when it comes to confronting elected officials, Twitter is not his go-to tactic. However, he says social media is an important tool: “Any avenue you can use to ask the questions that need to be asked — Twitter or email or in person or over the radio — if you are running for public office and you want to be truly transparent in your campaign, you either have to answer or say you don’t want to answer. You certainly don’t block the person who asked. If you are a coward don’t go into Philly politics. It’s a hard town. You need to be hard to run.”

Negrin’s habit of blocking accounts is not new. In March 2015, when Negrin was Philadelphia’s managing director, Jonas Maciunas, a Philadelphian and urban planner, tweeted a photo of a police car blocking a bike lane.

The tweet was retweeted by a few accounts including the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia account, who tagged Negrin. I couldn’t see Negrin’s response, as he blocked me, but this was his response:

Maciunas and other accounts responded with dissatisfaction. Negrin decided to block Maciunas. “I was surprised that he decided so easily and quickly to shut somebody out,” Maciunas said. “I thought that my post was about a legitimate public concern by a city resident.” Negrin also blocked the Bicycle Coalition’s account for critiquing his response. The Coalition says that Negrin deleted some of his tweets from the exchange. He has since unblocked them.

Maciunas feels that this story is a warning sign about Negrin, not only because of blocking critiques but also because of Negrin’s response when it comes to police. “He appears unwilling to question the behavior of police officers and acknowledge that they must set an example and be held to a higher standard than the general public.”

The irony in Maciunas’ story is that it shows that going to social media worked. The story of police cars blocking car lanes was picked up by Helen Ubiñas of the Daily News. Maciunas, who Ubiñas interviewed, says that her story improved the situation temporarily.

Complaining about being blocked on social media feels petty on some level. After all, it is only Twitter! But is it really that different from a representative blocking your phone number? Is it different from being blocked from entering a town hall meeting?

Open and accessible?

I reached out to the Negrin campaign for a response. On the campaign website there is no contact phone number or email address, only a link to Twitter (from which I’m blocked) and Facebook. Obviously, Negrin sees social media as a key tool for communication.

I reached Mark Nevins, a spokesperson for the Negrin campaign, who provided this comment:

“You would be hard pressed to find any managing director who was more accessible than Rich Negrin. He would meet with anyone and everyone. As a candidate, he remains uniquely open and accessible. If you want to have a conversation, if you want to talk about differences, there’s no one more interested in that conversation than Rich. But you better come to that conversation prepared to make progress on those differences. If you just want to pick a fight, if your goal is to prevent other people from engaging in a productive dialogue so you can push your own narrow perspective, then you’re probably going to get blocked.”

I would challenge the Negrin campaign to explain how writing an opinion piece or tweeting about it is to “prevent other people from engaging in productive dialogue so you can push your own narrow perspective.”

It comes down to character. In a city that some argue might be the most corrupt city in America, our elected officials and public servants owe us transparency. We have reason to be suspicious. If someone doesn’t have thick enough skin to handle criticism on Facebook, how can they handle the pressures that come with public office?

Personally, if Negrin is elected as D.A,. I find it extremely uncomfortable that I won’t be able to follow the city’s “top-cop’s” announcements on Twitter. I also feel uncomfortable with an elected official who doesn’t see a reason to know what his or her critics are saying and is willing to hide it. It is especially ironic that Negrin talks in candidate forums about the importance of a strong relationship between the D.A.’s office and the community. Listening to constituents complain is a part of the job of any public servant. Hiding complaints shouldn’t be an option, even if it is by blocking on Twitter.

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