Analysis: Officials’ texts take a digi-toll?
By Eric Blaisdell
STAFF WRITER | October 06,2012
MONTPELIER — City officials statewide are divided over how secret their digital communications can be during a public meeting — and whether they even want to address the question in the future.
An open records request showed several Montpelier City Council members were sending texts and emailing each other during a public meeting. It turns out they are not alone, but officials from other Vermont cities offer a range of viewpoints on whether their own communities need a policy on such behavior.
Burlington City Council President Joan Shannon said the council has been engaging in secret communication since she joined in 2003.
“When I first got on the council, notes were passed at every meeting,” she said. “Now we don’t get notes, but someone might text me, ‘You forgot to get a second on that motion.’”
Shannon says there is nothing wrong with the texts because they are about procedural issues and not about topics up for deliberation or things the city would vote on. She said she prefers texts over notes because they are less disruptive.
“(The note) would be passed all the way around the table, so every councilor would be disrupted by this note,” she said.
Burlington City Council members last year addressed whether they should bring electronic devices to meetings after the issue was raised because one councilor was sending tweets during meetings.
“What we resolved was councilors are elected and if a councilor is sitting there texting through every meeting, the voters sitting in the audience are not going to like that,” Shannon said. “If it seems like a councilor is not paying attention, is not being respectful, they need to be held accountable for that by the voters.”
She said the public appreciates the tweets to followers because residents may not be able to attend the council meetings or watch them on television.
Attorney Robert Hemley, who represents The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, said the public should be able to see text messages sent by city council members during meetings only if the councilors were texting each other about an issue they are deliberating.
“The idea of the public records law and the open meetings law is to give access to information that relates to decisions or considerations of the agency,” said Hemley, a Burlington attorney at Gravel & Shea.
Secretary of State Jim Condos said this week that while texting during meetings does not violate the open meetings law, he would not recommend the practice and characterized it as “shady.”
Barre City Councilor Michael Boutin said as far as he knows, there is no texting or tweeting going on between councilors during their meetings. He said he has sent 18 emails during meetings since February and most of them were requesting information from the city manager or other councilors or getting clarification on issues raised during the meetings.
“I usually turn my cellphone off during the meetings,” Boutin said, adding that he is careful about what he sends to fellow councilors. “If you don’t want to defend it in a court of law, you don’t put it in any kind of written format.”
Rutland City Alderman Sean Sargeant said he does not text during meetings and does not know of any councilors who do. He said Rutland does not have a policy against electronic communications between councilors during meetings but thinks it should, even if it is pre-emptive.
“The purpose of the meeting is so that everyone can have their debate out in the open and that people’s arguments for or against something can be subject to comment by everybody,” he said. “The purpose of having an open meeting is exactly for transparency. Government boards ought to err on the side of visibility, clarity and inclusiveness.”
Rutland City Alderman Christopher Robinson said he agrees that the council should be transparent, but he would handle it a different way, without a policy that may be hard to enforce.
“If it is to the point where I recognize other members of the board are using technology to pass messages about policy or how they are going to vote on something, I would find that a big issue,” he said. “If there is this other subculture that is occurring underneath the open public meeting that you see going on, it is incumbent upon any one of those members who recognize that to call it to the floor and bring it to the attention of everybody at that public meeting and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’”
He agreed with Shannon that if people are habitually engaging in the behavior, then voters should send them home.
St. Albans Mayor Liz Gamache said her city has no policy against electronic communications between councilors during meetings and does not think it needs one. She said texting has not been an issue for St. Albans and the city would address it if it becomes one.
In Winooski, City Councilor Sarah Robinson said her city was just brought into the digital age last year with councilors receiving their meeting packages, such as the agenda and information about presentations or topics, electronically.
Winooski has no electronic communication policy. She said putting one in place before there is any issue about councilors texting each other does not make sense. She noted there are only three city council members.
“We’re all pretty engaged in the conversation that is happening right in front of us,” Robinson said.
Newport Mayor Paul Monette said his city also has no electronic communications policy and has not had an issue with texting but that being pre-emptive about it would be a good idea. “It’s always good to be proactive with policies,” he said. “That way anybody who is newly elected will know the policies of the council.”