As Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz enters an election year, his opponents are raising questions about his pervasive social media presence and whether more stringent standards should be put in place to govern elected county officials' use of social media.
Last month, his opponents in the Erie County Legislature called attention to a legal filing against the county executive that alleged "continuous false and defamatory statements" by Poloncarz against two people who had ownership interests in a local nursing home. The lawmakers argued that the County Attorney's Office should not have to defend against social media remarks on his personal accounts.
On Monday, Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo sent a letter to the county attorney asking that he draw up a new social media policy for all county elected officials to follow. He told The News that Poloncarz should be "called out" for the way he mixes personal and professional messages on social media "totally unchecked."
Local attorneys however, said it's unlikely that Poloncarz's opponents will gain any legal foothold against him and his social media practices. As an elected official, Poloncarz has a wide and protected sweep of authority to issue his opinions – on social media or anywhere else.
"It's all nonsense," said Paul Cambria, a noted local lawyer who specializes in criminal and First Amendment cases.
Poloncarz has 14,000 Twitter followers and another roughly 10,000 on Facebook. He boasts more Twitter followers than Buffalo's mayor and local members of the New York State Legislature. For example, State Sen. Chris Jacobs, widely speculated as a potential Republican challenger to Poloncarz, has fewer than 1,200 Twitter followers.
Poloncarz diligently maintains an active page and presence on Facebook and can be found online riffing on everything from Perry Como's Christmas albums to the county comptroller's use of large envelope fonts. He keeps an Instagram account, as well.
He said he's not surprised opponents are trying to hamstring his social media practices.
"I know what this is," Poloncarz said. "They’re trying to shut me up from using my social media to communicate during an election year. It’s silly."
His tweets regularly reach thousands of people, he said. When he announced Kyle Williams Day in honor of the retiring Bills defensive tackle, he said his tweet reached nearly a million eyeballs.
Kyle Williams of @buffalobills exemplified the work ethic of our community and was a true role model to others. I just got off the phone with Kyle and informed him Sun. Dec. 30 will be Kyle Williams Day in Erie County. #ThankYouKyle for your commitment to the team and community. pic.twitter.com/iPMOQqyU5c
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) December 28, 2018
"One of the reasons I believe I have as many followers on Facebook and Twitter is because what you see is what you get," he said. "It’s me. It’s not some press person writing up some tweet based on some press release."
Indeed, since Poloncarz is unlike many gregarious and chat-happy politicians, some of the best insights into how he thinks about things can be found in his online postings. He ruminates about any number of wide-ranging topics, both personal and professional. Last month, he issued a steady diet of good-stuff-I've-done-as-county-executive tweets along with elation over a pivotal University at Buffalo Bulls hoops game and his eagerness to see the upcoming Captain Marvel movie.
Lorigo questioned the appropriateness of Poloncarz sending out county-related tweets, but also using his personal accounts to promote political fundraisers, or even having other staffers tweet from his personal accounts during daytime press conferences.
"There’s no way I think that’s appropriate, and that’s the conversation I think we need to have," he said.
He also criticized having the County Attorney's Office defend Poloncarz in a notice of claim by Benjamin and Judy Landa, two people who had ownership interests in Emerald South Nursing and Rehabilitation and its real estate. Poloncarz held a news conference in front of Emerald South to decry conditions there and demand the state take action. He repeated his critical remarks on his personal social media pages.
Poloncarz called Lorigo hypocritical and jealous.
"I find it interesting that he’s criticizing me for exactly the same thing that the president of the United States is doing on his Twitter page," he said.
Cambria, the attorney, said Poloncarz is legally entitled to have county taxpayers defend his comments because they were his opinion, made in his capacity as county executive, and the comments could be argued as being made for the benefit to his constituents.
"The question is, can he defend it as a legitimate message. I think that’s very defensible," Cambria said.
That Poloncarz made the comments from his personal Twitter account has no bearing on whether the County Attorney's Office should defend them, he said. If he made the same comment to The Buffalo News, on the radio, TV or through any other vehicle, it would still fall to the county to defend, Cambria said.
Poloncarz said the notice of claim will not keep him from speaking out.
"I will never, ever be intimidated by the threat of a lawsuit to stop doing my job as county executive, protecting the health and welfare and well-being of my constituents," he said.