Keep public business open, not on a PDA | Editorial

This hasn’t happened here yet. But in this new technological age, it could. And it shouldn’t. That’s the reason for the following editorial.

Members of the Olympia City Council have come under some heat, and rightfully so, for e-mailing each other during council meetings.

According to the Tacoma News-Tribune, a resident requested copies of messages e-mailed between council members during six meetings. Those e-mails show council members lining up votes “and, in one case, calling a community activist sitting in the audience a ‘coward,’ ” the News-Tribune reported. “A Sept. 23 exchange shows council members debating— unbeknownst to the public — the release of a property from a moratorium.”

Tim Ford, the state Attorney General’s open government expert, wrote to Olympia Mayor Doug Mah regarding the council’s use of e-mail during council meetings. His opinion: “E-mail deliberations on public matters that are concurrently being discussed in a public meeting are wholly inconsistent with the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act and should cease,” Ford said, according to the News-Tribune.

Public agencies in the San Juan Islands should note the Olympia experience and take steps to ensure technology is not used to circumvent the public process here. How many elected officials own a Blackberry, cell phone or other PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)? All of those devices can be used to communicate with someone else. Public officials communicating via PDA are engaging in discussions from which the public is excluded. That violates the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act.

A reader of the News-Tribune wrote about the use of PDAs by elected officials in public meetings, “Often times it’s hard to see if it’s texting, e-mailing or even just playing on a Gameboy. In any fashion and in any manner, elected officials in public meetings need to put away their toys and at least try and give some appearance of actually listening to the meeting at hand.”

Former San Juan County Council member Kevin Ranker, now a state senator, frequently used his laptop during council meetings. And early last year, the Friday Harbor Town Council discussed issuing council members laptop computers, which they could have with them at their places on the dais.

Fortunately, the Town Council has a good policy (adopted Dec. 18, 2003) regarding computer and Internet use: “All electronic messages must be appropriate to the Town’s professional environment ... All documents, files, communications, and messages are the property of the Town.”

(At the behest of Town Councilman Chris Wolf, the town also revised its policy regarding council e-mails to ensure a public record of communications can be maintained. The town clerk monitors towncouncil@fridayharbor.org and forwards e-mails of substance to council members. Each council member has an individual town e-mail address for use in conducting town-related business. Each council member is required to send a copy of his or her response to e-mails relating to town business or issues to towncouncil@fridayharbor.org.)

The problem is, few if any local government policies in Washington state address the use of personal devices during meetings. This should be addressed, because the use of personal devices have the potential to circumvent the state’s open meetings law by allowing a communication in a public forum to which the public is excluded — a communication that may have influenced an important policy decision.

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