Let’s restore faith that the community’s interests come first whenever members take the dais

Why Are Mobile Phones Called Cell Phones? | by Daniel Ganninger | Knowledge Stew | Medium

This editorial is the opinion of Morgan Hill

City Council meetings shape important community decisions. Recently, a concerned resident discussed with us the issue of potential cell phone misuse during proceedings.

The question is: does private email and texting during a meeting violate transparency? If a councilmember is communicating via digital device during a discussion with an unknown individual and receiving comments or even advice from them the other officials and the public are not privy to, does that go against the principles of democracy?

We talked with the city attorney and learned there is no law that bans phone use by councilmembers during a meeting. Some officials use their devices for taking notes or looking up information. Those are legitimate uses of tech tools. But ethics come into question when a councilmember is in a private conversation with someone feeding them questions or comments. It is as if there is an invisible sixth councilmember in the discussion.

Side-channel conversations erode accountability mandated by open meeting laws. We believe backroom communication has no place in the chamber. A strict no-cell phone standard leaves no room for confusion or temptation on what many residents who attend in person or watch meetings on screens might see as unscrupulous.

The public has a right to know who a councilmember is chatting with during a meeting. There is a danger to democracy if engaged in inappropriate coordination. Using the phones during a discussion of an agenda item also distracts from an elected official’s due diligence owed to residents. Council business merits complete presence of mind.

Because this technology is relatively new, the laws and guidelines have yet to catch up. An official’s text messages during meetings should be legally considered public records. They must not be erased if required for a Public Records Act request.

Naturally, special circumstances for family emergencies could justify brief usage or stepping away. However, the default posture must be total focus on proceedings. Voters appointed councilmembers to fully participate. To keep our local government running by the people and for the people, we encourage the council to establish official rules limiting or even banning devices during public meetings.

Let’s restore faith that the community’s interests come first whenever members take the dais. To maintain its integrity, the council must enact a formal policy prohibiting cell phone usage at the dais.