Politics
3:43 pm
Wed July 6, 2011

Communities ban texting, and e-mails during council meetings

With the number of digital devices like smart phones and tablets exploding, communicating with one another electronically is becoming a common part of our society.

And as many high school teachers know, thumbing on a keyboard can even go undetected if you're good.

Now, some communities are banning the practice of texting and e-mailing during public meetings.

The Detroit News has a piece on the restrictions some local governments have put in place. The piece looks at the restrictions in Ann Arbor, Royal Oak, and Sterling Heights.

From the Detroit News:

Supporters say the issue is about transparency and integrity, not to mention common courtesy. They argue email or even text conversations could violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act, which requires decisions and most deliberations to be public.

"It's about maintaining the integrity of this council and futurecouncils," said Maria Schmidt, a city councilwoman in Sterling Heights, which amended its council governing rules earlier this year to ban electronic communication during meetings.

But critics of the bans say technology helps these officials do their jobsmore effectively and efficiently. They call the bans "short-sighted."

The article revisits the controversy surrounding the Ann Arbor City Council when it was discovered that council members were e-mailing each other during meetings in 2007 and 2008. The Ann Arbor News reported in 2009 that the e-mails showed:

  • Personal political campaign activity conducted during council meetings.
  • Jockeying over the politics of City Council salary increases.
  • And discussion of public business in a way that left citizens in the dark.

A group sued the council for violating the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts. The case was settled and the Ann Arbor City Council later changed its rules restricting electronic communication during council meetings.

In the Detroit News article, Robin Herrmann, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, said electronic communication can keep information from the public:

"Before the use of all these devices, if a member of a public body had a question for their council, they would say it out loud," said Herrmann, who said she has no problem with officials using a laptop to take notes or to send a quick email or text if there's a family emergency. "If two people are texting and it has to do with the business of the public body, that sort of communication — which is informing their decisions — should take place in public."

Not everyone agrees with the ban. Michael Taylor, a Sterling Heights Councilman, said texting or emailing is no different than whispering to a colleague. Taylor said he'll keep using his iPad despite the ban. So where do you fall in this debate? Should public officials be allowed to text or e-mail during public meetings?