The Huntington City Council did the right thing last week when it approved a resolution prohibiting members from using electronic communication devices during meetings. Now other government bodies should do likewise.
Documents provided to The Herald-Dispatch in response to a Freedom of Information request showed that during a July 22 meeting, at least three people contacted council members during a meeting about a matter that was up for vote. The documents also showed that one council member sent text messages to other council members, both present and absent.
The communication was not in violation of the West Virginia open meetings law or the council’s own rules. Both the law and council rules were written before cell phones and other forms of personal electronic communications became commonplace.
After Monday’s meeting, council member Tyler Bowen called the resolution as written a “knee-jerk reaction” and used a crude and vulgar comment to describe it.
Is that how a member of an elected public body sees the need for open public meetings where all comments are entered on the public record and no one has private access to elected officials who are voting on public matters? Maybe in the days that have passed the councilman has reconsidered his comment.
While the council members who sent and received text messages during the July 22 meeting weren’t violating the letter of the West Virginia open meetings law, Council Chairman Mike Shockley said the law should be reviewed.
“I think that the integrity of how you do business any time you’re in session and it’s open to the public, I feel that the integrity has to be there,” Shockley said. “You can’t have sidebar conversations in the middle of a public meeting. You can’t have someone from the public walk up, whisper in your ear and go back and sit down.”
As has been noted in this space before, the West Virginia Legislature needs to review and update its open meetings laws and its public records laws to account for the widespread use of private electronic communications, including text messages and emails, during public meetings of public bodies. Any such communications conducted during open sessions of public bodies should be made part of the official record of the meeting.
Before the Legislature acts, municipalities, county commissions and other government boards and agencies should adopt similar rules for their meetings.
Moving forward, Huntington City Council members will be issued tablets that do not receive communication to use during meetings, which will also limit the use of paper, Shockley said. The city clerk’s office will upload documents directly to the tablets before meetings and council members can take notes on the devices.
That’s a good measure that deals with the availability of information while preventing private and secret communications.
It’s not just the letter of the law. It’s the spirit of the law — one that establishes the principle that public business is to be conducted in public, with no one having special access to public officials as votes are taken.