After 90 minutes of excruciating debate -- following years of inability to resolve the issue -- the Legislative Council on Wednesday granted legislators the right to use state computers to update their Facebook pages and to view the timelines of their Facebook friends.
That's exactly the rule they were operating under before the council meeting, but the policy had expired in 2012 and a permanent rule has been elusive.
While the use of Facebook, the universal social media site, might seem like a no-brainer for elected officials who owe their jobs to their ability to communicate with people in their districts, the first vote by the council to completely open the Legislature's computer network to Facebook failed 10-1.
The council voted twice on resolutions that would allow legislative staff to log on to Facebook. Both failed to pass. The council approved access for the Legislature's nonpartisan agencies like the state ombudsman and the Office of Victims' Rights, and continued the practice of allowing its press officers and webmasters to maintain Facebook pages.
The debate Wednesday had a generational quality to it. One of the leading advocates for opening the Legislature's network to Facebook was Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, who, at age 32, was by far the youngest member of the Legislative Council in attendance. The rest were in their 50s, 60s or 70s, and all 11 legislators attending the session in person or by teleconference were men.
Pruitt's main ally in the meeting was Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who said Facebook was an important tool for staying in touch with younger constituents who ignored other media.
But other legislators questioned whether posts on Facebook or private messages sent in Facebook would be subject to open records laws. And they expressed concern that the legal immunity they enjoy for their legislative work would somehow be compromised by posts on Facebook. One legislator wondered whether he'd run afoul of the First Amendment if he removed offensive messages that someone else posted to his page.
Curtis Clothier, the Legislature's technology chief, said his research with the National Conference of State Legislatures found that the Alaska Legislature had the most restrictive rules for accessing Facebook. Alaska's executive branch network is much more open, with some 38 agencies and departments actively maintaining their own Facebook pages.
"Other state government agencies and legislatures are going with it for a number of reasons -- they need to work with other state agencies, local governments, businesses, newsprint," Clothier said. "They're all using Facebook now. It's kind of hard to hold back the tide."
The Legislative Council, the Legislature's 14-member housekeeping and administrative body, has been grappling with the Facebook question since 2010. At that time, the social network site was blocked to all users of the legislative computer network, but some legislators wanted to use to Facebook to communicate with their constituents.
According to minutes of a council meeting on Feb. 4, 2010, when the issue first came up, Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he was puzzled about how to vote.
"He has no personal knowledge of Facebook.com and does not know what the boundaries and barriers are," the minutes said. "He went on to state that there are concerns with teenagers and pedophiles and how to keep that off the network."
Stoltze, still on the council, voted against all the resolutions Wednesday to allow Facebook.
Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the Legislative Council, said Wednesday he was determined to settle the matter one way or the other.
"It has been long-discussed in this committee, over many years before I took chair. It's time for us to bring some finality to this with some up or down votes," Hawker said.
Sen. President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, voted against Facebook access for all except press officers, though he missed the final vote that opened access to Legislators themselves for legislative business.
"I know my value system is much different than some in this room, but if it keeps you from running for the Legislature because you can't have Facebook in your office, then don't run, or buy your own computer -- do it on your own time," Huggins said. "The same thing is for staff. If you feel that strong that you can't exist in your lifetime, move on. You got a pocket full of change -- buy yourself and go do it on your own time, or in your bathroom, whatever the case may be."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.