Residents complain electronic devices close open meetings
by Hannah Morgan
November 10, 2013 12:06 AM | 3200 views | 3 3 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — Elected leaders across Georgia have been using smartphones and iPads for city business, helping them work smarter and more efficiently, they say.

But when they tap out a message to a fellow board member during a meeting, some residents have complained that they feel locked out of a business meeting that is supposed to be open to the public.

The advent of private text messages being sent via smartphones during public meetings is seen by some as an end-run around the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

Kennesaw’s City Council could be one of the first cities in the state to confront the issue as it is considering a ban on texting and instant messag-ing during city meetings. The question surfaced after complaints from residents who said they felt left out of the secret conversations being conducted through taps on a tablet rather than voiced out loud into a council member’s microphone.

Undermining the spirit of openness?

Councilwoman Cris Welsh has repeatedly proposed that the council ban using all electronic devices during open meetings, although the council has yet to vote on her recommendation.

Her resolution would ban all use of the Internet, texting, instant messaging and emailing during open meetings, except for in family emergencies.

The council has been hesitant to adopt such a policy, voicing concerns with being unable to fact-check certain issues that may come up during meetings.

Welsh said the idea for her ban came after meetings in early 2012 where she saw fellow council members texting each other about city business, which prompted a post on the blog of a city resident, which questioned the amount of time elected officials spent on their phones during meetings.

“I think any communication we have amongst ourselves should be where the public could see it,” Welsh said.

Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said that while the texts between public officials were subject to release under the state’s Open Records Act, the fact that public officials are texting during public meetings “seems to undermine the purpose of the Open Meetings Act.”

While the idea of banning usage of electronics during open city meetings is not new — Austin, Texas, Gresham, Ore., and San Jose, Calif., have all banned texting and emailing during city meetings — the idea has been slow to gain traction in Kennesaw and other Cobb cities.

Some residents believe transparency is ideal, others believe it is a policy that puts too many restrictions on elected officials. During a meeting last month, Councilman Tim Killingsworth said, “I don’t need a policy, I’m an adult.”

Attorney General weighs in

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said the state’s sunshine laws don’t prohibit texting, although he does caution what to include in those messages.

“The issue is what are they texting, and if they are just frankly making a statement, that also would not violate the state law,” Olens said. “If they literally say something like, ‘I’ll vote ‘yea’ if you do x,’ that’s the type of stuff that gets someone in trouble.”

Olens, who chaired the Cobb Board of Commissioners prior to his election as attorney general, where he became well versed on conducting public meetings, said he understands why residents would be bothered as they watched from the audience as their elected officials texted each other.

“If you ask me from a policy perspective whether or not it’s good policy to be texting your colleagues during a meeting, the answer is no, because I think the public deserves transparency,” Olens said. “But the question of whether it’s good public policy is different than whether it violates state law.”

Olens said his office has no plans to propose a revision in the law when it comes to texting because it’s not that different from email, which was addressed when the law was rewritten a few years ago.

“We had the same type of discussion on emails, and it would be the same thing for emails as it would for texts,” Olens said. “The General Assembly did not want to restrict elected officials’ ability to express comments to each other. Where it becomes a problem is where they start talking about voting.”

Residents denied access to records

Residents have received pushback from the city when requesting copies of texts that have passed between council members during meetings, said Steve Welsh, a city resident and the husband of councilwoman Welsh.

He filed an Open Records Request with the city for copies of texts sent during spring 2012 council meetings, and was initially told by city officials that the texts were not included in Georgia’s sunshine laws, he said, and that the city did not have to reveal them.

A few weeks later, he was told that the city could pull the texts, as they were indeed covered by the Open Records Act, but that it would cost him upwards of $600 to see all the texts he had asked for, he said.

The city had cited technical difficulties in pulling the texts for him, Welsh said.

After about a year of fighting to see copies of the texts, Welsh said he just gave up.

“I believe technology is a good thing, but you have to adapt to emerging technology, as new technologies occur, you have to change your behaviors to keep the transparency available and to keep the impropriety away,” Steve Welsh said, as texting during meetings gives residents the opportunity to assume the worst of their elected officials.

Rick Arnold, who works for the city’s information technology department, told council members at a recent work session that it cost the city $28 to buy the technology to pull the texts of council members, but said that after any texts were deleted, it became impossible to pull for an Open Records Request.

Cris Welsh said she and other council members had received a note from the city’s attorney, Randall Bentley, that told her not to delete any of her texts from her city phone soon after her husband’s requests were made.

Councilman Bruce Jenkins said he has seen his fellow council members texting during meetings, but doesn’t think it’s a problem.

“I don’t think it’s a real problem, and I don’t think there is anyone using it (texting) to debate an issue, but it is an issue where citizens need to have complete trust and transparency in the people who are serving them,” he said.

Banning a social norm

Greg Streib, a professor of public management and policy at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, said there is a fine line for council members using technology during meetings.

While it might not “look good,” to have elected officials on their iPads and phones during meetings, Streib argued that many issues discussed in meetings need background information, which could be accessed quickly with the handheld Internet devices given to council members.

Residents “are paying those folks who serve the city to think and be responsible, and as electronic tools have become part of our own thought process, it is really hard to think through an issue without being with a computer or phone,” he said.

Kennesaw began providing city workers and elected officials with cellphones in 1999, and pays a monthly phone bill of $5,888, city spokeswoman Pam Davis.

At the moment, there are no rules on how the elected officials can use their city technology, Davis said.

The council will readdress the electronics communications ban at its next work session on Wednesday.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
November 11, 2013
They're not trying to hide nefarious communications. They're trying to hide the fact that they are ignoring the meeting and surfing the Twitters and Facebooks!

There's projectors that display computer screens for all to see. Place one above each council person using any type of electronic device during the meeting and hook them up!
Joseph Pond
November 10, 2013
The BOC routinely pass notes between each, and the Marietta Council often whisper into each other's ears. Will there be a ban on this activity as well?
Cuts out the public
November 10, 2013
We need a law that any texts or other communications during open meetings by public officials be displayed in real time on a monitor or not allowed at all. The whole meeting could be done on a tablet or smartphone and completely cut the public out if this is allowed. Mr. Olens is absolutely wrong to not propose a solution. The whole idea of officals communicating privately during a public meeting is outragious.
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