The Chicago Board of Ethics admonished an elected Chicago official who used their professional social media accounts to broadcast a prayer service they led in violation of rules that prohibit city leaders from using city resources for non-official purposes.
The unanimous advisory opinion issued Monday by the Chicago Board of Ethics is the first public enforcement of rules governing the use of social media by elected officials in Chicago issued by the board in January 2019. The official was not named, nor was the office they hold identified, in keeping with the board’s rules.
The 2019 opinion requires elected city officials to keep accounts designed to promote their bids for re-election or personal accounts separate from those designed to inform the public about their official duties. That is designed to eliminate the possibility that “non-city business is being sponsored or endorsed by the city,” according to the board’s opinion signed by Chair William Conlon.
The elected official broadcast the prayer service, which took place in 2020, on their office’s official Facebook page, and promoted it on its official Twitter account and on its official Instagram account. In addition, invitations to the service were sent from the elected official’s city email account, according to the board’s opinion.
A video of the service, which was hosted by the official, remains posted on their official Facebook page, officials said.
“The board has determined that using city resources and property in this manner constitutes an unauthorized use of city-owned property” and is prohibited by the Governmental Ethics Ordinance, according to the opinion.
In addition to their office’s Facebook page, the elected official in question operates a Facebook group that is open to the public. Accompanied by clergy, the elected official has been broadcasting nightly prayer services to the members of that group.
The board’s investigation focuses on one service that was broadcast not only to members of the Facebook group operated by the elected official but also on their office’s Facebook page and other social media accounts, according to the board’s opinion.
That “sends the unmistakable, and impermissible, signal that the city is advancing and sponsoring personal content that here happens to be religious in nature and that is unrelated to [your] official responsibilities and business,” according to the board’s opinion. “This is especially pronounced as you, in your capacity as a city elected official, are the individual hosting the prayer session.”
It is not relevant that the “personal content” posted on the elected official’s city-focused Facebook page was religious, only that it is not related to his or her official duties, according to the board’s opinion.
The elected official has until Jan. 5 to delete the video of the prayer service from their official Facebook page, official Twitter account and Instagram account or face fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 for each offense in violation of the city’s ethics ordinance.
The elected official can ask the board to reconsider their decision by Jan. 5, and not face penalties until a final decision is made by the board, which is scheduled to meet next on Jan. 11.
The Board of Ethics also prohibits elected officials who use social media like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with constituents and city residents from blocking people from following their accounts or deleting comments critical of them or their positions.
However, elected officials may delete comments posted to their pages if they are “obscene, profane, libelous or defamatory, or are commercial and posted to sell goods or services,” according to the opinion.