Gardner: Employee handbook can’t regulate elected official’s social media activities

Published 3:52 pm Thursday, March 16, 2023

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VIDALIA, La. — Vidalia aldermen adopted a new employee handbook Tuesday that one alderman voted against because it tries to regulate what an alderman can or can’t say on social media.

The primary reason for changing to the town’s employee handbook was to address a discrepancy between the way department heads handle personal leave and sick leave, said Jay Lasyone, the town manager. To read the revised employee handbook, click here.

Some departments were stricter about granting employees sick leave than others and required doctor’s excuses, Lasyone said.

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Instead of having language that designates seven sick days and three personal days, the revised handbook gives all employees 10 personal days in a calendar year that can be used as either illness or personal days to keep things consistent in all departments.

However, Alderman Robert Gardner noted another change regarding social media conduct.

One sentence was changed to the town’s existing guidelines for social media conduct first adopted in January 2018. The original handbook said, “This policy applies to all employees who work for the City of Vidalia.” The revision says, “This policy applies to all employees and elected officials who work for the Town of Vidalia.”

According to these guidelines, no employee or elected official should “air personal workplace grievances on social media” and “never represent yourself as a spokesperson for the Town of Vidalia.” The rest of the handbook only applies to employees and not elected officials, Gardner pointed out.

“There are things we can’t force elected officials to do because of motives or agendas we may have against other elected officials,” Gardner said. “… From an elected official standpoint, we all have different platforms that we can use and sometimes we may go to social media to get our point across to the people who are not sitting here in meetings.”

Gardner made the motion to approve the employee handbook with the amendment that the words “elected officials” be taken out of the social media clause. His motion died for lack of a second.

Then the aldermen approved the employee handbook as is by a vote of 4-1 with Gardner casting the lone “nay” vote.

“I don’t feel like especially an aldermen should get on social media and say something negative about — for instance — Jon (Betts) or the mayor,” said Alderman Brent Smith. “I don’t think any of us ought to air out the town’s dirty laundry on social media.”

Gardner pointed out, “Regardless to however the decision is made tonight, you can’t stop an elected official from saying (what they want). If you want to put it in the handbook you can do it but it is not the law. … It might as well say all elected officials have to drug test, but we can’t do that.”

In other matters during Tuesday’s meeting of the Vidalia Board of Aldermen, an announcement was made about the town’s intent to sell 46 acres near the Syrah Resources Technologies’ only U.S. graphite plant in Vidalia to Syrah to allow room for Phase III of its planned expansion.

The Australian-based company has been awarded a grant of up to $220 million from the US Department of Energy to bankroll the expansion of its Vidalia plant.

“What this means for Vidalia and its surrounding is another 120 people (working at the plant). It’s a rather large building project, three times larger than what we’ve already got, which means a lot more people working and additional money to the town,” said Peter Odgers, COO of the Vidalia operation.

No action was taken on the matter during Tuesday’s meeting other than the announcement.

The board unanimously adopted a resolution to put together an application for a loan through the Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund to update wastewater systems for the town, Lasyone said.

“What makes it attractive is the extremely low-interest rate, less than 1 percent right now,” he said.

Twice now, the town has applied for DEQ’s grant program but the funds went to projects in larger cities. This would give the town another avenue to fund up to$5.6 million worth of planned updates to the wastewater system, he added.

The majority of funds, if approved, would go toward updating the Azalea Street lift station while about $400,000 to $500,000 would be used to upgrade aerators, he said.

“This doesn’t obligate the town in any way but gets us in shape to present a package to DEQ for approval,” Lasyone said. “If we get approved for the loan, then we would come back before the board to vote yay or nay on the loan.”

The board also unanimously approved occupational licenses for Leslie-Anne’s Vintage Emporium at 1644-B Carter St. for a vintage resell and antique flea market store; Finders Relics & Resale at 1631 Carter St. for a general resale store; and Vintage Souls Market & Boutique at 103 Carter St. for antiques and clothing retail. Aldermen also approved an outdoor sign application for LSU Ag Center at 112 Front St.