Thursday, January 20, 2011

Brockton Weighs Electronic Communication Ban

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Brockton Ward 2 City Councilor Thomas Monahan isn’t against modern technology such as cell phones, IPhones and laptop computers—except when they distract from business during city council meetings and could possibly violate the Open Meeting and Public Records laws.
“We all need to be focused on the meeting—it’s rude when people are text messaging or emailing while business is going on and it’s rude when council members get up and talk to each other when other things are being discussed,” Monahan said. “We shouldn’t be doing either,” he said.
Monahan recently submitted an ordinance for review to possibly ban city councilors from sending or receiving text messages, emails or using cell phones during regular City Council meetings, including the finance committee and public hearings.
Monahan said he isn’t completely against the use of the electronics—the submitted ordinance would allow internet use, but because of Open Meeting and Public Records laws internet use should be limited to items being discussed by the council.
Ward 6 City Councilor Michelle DuBois—who said she believes the ban is targeted at her—believes the use of the internet has helped her during discussions, most recently during a December tax classification hearing when she looked up information about the debate to help her understand the issue.
“If I didn’t have my IPhone I wouldn’t have been able to get the answers to some of my questions,” DuBois said.
Monahan said DuBois was not the target of the new ban. He learned about the issue from his brother who is a town manager in Oregon, but believes officials need to look at the matter before it becomes a problem.
He also said the way some City Councilors get up and down to talk to one another during meetings also distracts from the business at hand and could be dealt with through the council’s code of conduct.
Monahan said the Ordinance Committee will discuss the proposal at its next meeting and anyone who wants to comment about the ordinance should attend the meeting.
“Everything’s open to being moved around and changed,” Monahan said.
The proposed ordinance (see document above) Monahan said is based on one in Gresham, Oregon where the use of text messages, computer games and emails has been banned during city council meetings because of Open Meeting, Public Records and decorum issues that have been raised in Brockton since Monahan submitted the proposed rule two weeks ago.
He said Ordinance Committee Chairman Christopher MacMillan has not called the meeting yet, but expects the issue to be on the committee’s next agenda.
Brockton and Oregon are not alone in its attempt to get a grip on the use of personal communication devices and the pitfalls of their use by government officials and elected boards.
Gresham, Oregon banned the use late last year, in part because among other questions, text messages sent back and forth between members could create a quorum of discussion by members and violate Open Meeting Laws.
The Texas Legislature is reviewing a bill that attempts to address some of the Open Meeting and Public Records issues that text-messaging has raised and Massachusetts’ City of Lawrence voted against banning hand-held electronic devices by a narrow 5-4 vote last August.
Billerica’s Board of Selectmen banned text-messaging nearly two years ago in February, 2009 by a vote of 4-1.
Billerica Selectman Robert Correnti said the ban specifically targeted one member—the dissenting vote--because that selectman, Marc Lombardo—now a state representative-- constantly received and sent text messages during meetings.
Correnti said it went on for a year and finally he proposed a ban because anything Lombardo was texting could not be downloaded and made into a hard copy if a member of the public, press or a fellow official wanted to view the messages Lombardo was receiving and sending.
“It just took on a life of its own,” Correnti said of the debate. Correnti said not only did he think it was rude it created a lot of questions surrounding Public Records and Open Meeting laws.
“If someone asks for a copy of that text message they can’t get it,” Correnti said.
Noting nearly all communications—emails and text messages --between governmental officials and constituents is a public record unless it falls under the exceptions outlined in the state’s Public Records laws, Correnti said officials at the Secretary of State’s Office advised him to “stay away” from texting during meetings.
“The law and the technology are not together yet, and until they are it’s better to stay away from it,” Correnti said.
Correnti said another reason members supported the ban was the idea of a behind-the-scenes “shadow council,” that texts messages and emails questions, comments and policy proposals to selectmen or other officials during meetings.
“These people weren’t elected, we don’t know who they are. Now you have a councilor and a hidden cadre of supporters. The public is deprived of hearing that discussion,” Correnti said.
Others like Brockton Ward 6 City Councilor Michelle DuBois said if modern devices are used in the right way can help councilors do a better job and she is not someone who isn’t paying attention during meetings. She said most everything she looks up pertains to the discussion at hand or she is looking up something for an agenda item later in the discussion.
DuBois said her internet searches are better than the old days when councilors were known to doodle with pen and paper during the meetings.
“This is the 21st Century,” DuBois said.

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