12/11/2013 1:25:00 PM Private texting at public meeting
The Rice Lake Chronotype
Technology and the state's open meetings law clashed last month at a City Council meeting. The issue raises several questions about public meetings and private communication during those meetings. Last month, citizen Jim Weber addressed the council. He said he noticed one councilmember texting during a meeting. He said that councilmember should have been paying attention during the meeting, and that texting during a meeting was disrespectful to other members of the council. He said the texts should be public documents because they may have been to other councilmembers about how they would vote on a topic at hand or other city business. Weber's comments came during the public comments part of the meeting. The council took no action. A news story on the meeting drew an online comment from former councilmember and mayor Romaine Quinn. Quinn wrote on "ricelakeonline.com" that he was in the audience at that meeting and that he was the person texting the councilmember from the audience. "As I sat in the audience (with only 4 other people), I sent numerous text messages to more than one councilmember asking questions for clarification, since as a member of the audience I am not allowed to speak out during meetings. I sent them during the meeting because yes, I believed maybe the public would have liked clarification on certain topics as well. I can assure anyone and everyone that there was nothing going on that was inappropriate," he wrote. "The councilmember being referred to was not doing anything illegal, or unethical in terms of trying to force particular outcomes from the council and how they voted," Quinn wrote. In Rice Lake, the public is not allowed to openly address the council during deliberations. The public can make comments at the beginning of the meeting, but not during a council discussion. That long-standing system had been in place, presumably, to maintain a semblance of order as the council openly discusses a topic. Introducing private text messaging from the public to councilmembers during deliberations adds an element of secrecy to the considerations. The public has no way of knowing what information is being passed through texts during council deliberations, or to whom, or by whom. Council meetings are broadcast live on the local public access channel. Last month the texting was from the audience, but people could also watch the council meetings from their homes and text councilmembers as the discussion unfolds. They could, in effect, become behind-the-scenes council members. We're not aware of any legal rulings about sending or receiving texts during council meetings. Perhaps the open meetings law has not yet caught up to the technology. But our gut feeling is that to maintain trust between the public and elected officials, such texts should be public record, and councilmembers should pay attention to the meeting rather than sending or receiving texts. Out of respect, the people in the audience usually silence their phones during a public meeting. A similar policy for councilmembers should be considered.
[The editorials that appear weekly in this space are the views of the newspaper as determined by The Chronotype's editorial board. All editorials are written by one or more members of the board, which consists of Warren Dorrance, Sam Finazzo, Gene Prigge and Eileen Nimm.] - - - -