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Statehouse Beat: State officials’ website photos vary

Ethics Commissioners may have assured plenty of overtime for web designers by decreeing that public officials are to have a strictly limited quota of photographs of themselves on their official state agency or office websites.

According to the advisory opinion unanimously approved on Thursday, photographs of elected officials are to be limited to the website’s homepage and to any biographical page for the official.

That was the commission’s first interpretation of the new “trinkets” law, which prohibits public officials from using taxpayer dollars for self-promotional trinkets, advertising or entertainment – and it was a dozy.

A quick check of websites for statewide elected officials show that some are already in compliance with the advisory opinion.

One has to search to find a picture of Patrick Morrisey on the attorney general’s office website. I could only find one, on a biographical page that’s a subcategory of one of six links on the homepage.

Likewise, one has to do a lot of hunting on the state auditor’s website to come up with a picture of Glen Gainer. Even finding his picture on his biographical page requires a good bit of searching.

Surprisingly, given his history of self-promotion, there also only seems to be only one primary picture of John Perdue on the treasurer’s website, although it’s part of a banner that remains as you click to other webpages. The picture featuring Perdue is currently one of five images that alternate, so it’s conceivable he could pop up on pages other than the homepage. Perdue also has pictures on some secondary links, including his biographical page.

On the other hand, you’ll not find many places on the webpages for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick or Secretary of State Natalie Tennant that are lacking the office-holders’ visages.

Websites for Tomblin and Helmick also have banners with their photos at the top of the homepage, and that banner follows readers to whatever other pages on the website they visit.

As of Friday, Tomblin had assigned general counsel Peter Markham to review the advisory opinion and make recommendations for compliance, Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said.

“We’ll certainly do whatever’s necessary to comply,” Stadelman said. “We’ll work with our attorneys to figure out what changes we need to make, if any.”

He noted that the advisory opinion raises all sorts of side issues.

The governor’s homepage, for instance, features a “slider,” a website doohickey that automatically scrolls through multiple pictures, in this case, of Tomblin participating in a variety of events. For purposes of complying with the Ethics opinion, does that count as one picture, or multiple pictures? Also, does it matter if the slideshow function works automatically or if the user has to manually advance the pictures?

Then there’s Tennant, whose name and photograph is featured prominently on her website’s homepage, and every other page that one can conceivably find on the secretary of state’s website.

Indeed, from any of the hundreds of pages on the office’s website, one can click on Tennant’s photo, prominently displayed in the upper left-hand corner, to return to the homepage.

Briana Wilson, the new spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said Friday, “We’re in the process of checking out and updating our website to make sure we’re in compliance.”

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Significantly, as a reader noted, the advisory opinion addresses restrictions on officials’ pictures on their websites, but not other forms of social media. Tomblin, Tennant, Morrisey, Perdue, and even Helmick – who likes to boast that he never uses computers -- all have “official” Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.

While official state office websites are sort of a virtual version of the elected official’s bricks-and-mortar office -- i.e., not someplace the average citizen would have occasion to visit regularly -- Facebook and Twitter are all about self-promotion.

Even those officials who have strictly limited the number of photos of themselves on their websites have beaucoup photos on their social media sites. Both Facebook and Twitter are perfectly suited for public officials seeking to publicize their latest crowning achievement, award or recognition from grateful citizenry, or their next upcoming public appearance.

Ethics Commission rules for enforcing the trinkets law indicates it is proper for public officials to use email, social media and other public media to disseminate “press releases or official information.”

Does some of the material on the officials’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds cross over the line into self-promotion prohibited under the new law? That may require a future advisory opinion to determine.

(In this case, the request for an advisory opinion was specifically directed to websites, not social media, and the Ethics Commission may only address the issues presented in the request.)

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Finally, speaking of websites, congrats to the Legislature’s IT staff of Dennis Loudermilk, Dave Martin, John Tice and Robert Guam after the state Legislature’s website was named one of the five best in the country by FiscalNote, a legislative website platform provider.

The Legislature’s website (www.legis.state.wv.us) got high marks for speed and usability.

California, Michigan, Tennessee and Virginia rounded out the top five, while neighboring Kentucky was rated as having one of the five worst legislative websites.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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