Montpelier records request yields councilors’ textsOctober 02,2012
By Eric Blaisdell
MONTPELIER — The results of a public records request made by The Times Argus has put the spotlight on the latest trend among some public officials: texting and emailing one another during public meetings.
While the issue is not illegal, it closes in on unethical behavior, and Secretary of State Jim Condos cautioned Tuesday that elected officials should be careful if they continue with the practice.
“If they are texting back and forth information that may possibly help them make a decision, the public has a right to know that,”
Condos said, adding that he would not recommend the behavior for public officials. “There is nothing that says they can’t do it, (The texts and emails) are just public record.”
He characterized the practice as shady.
Vermont’s open records law defines a public record or document as “any written or recorded information regardless of physical form or characteristics which is produced or acquired in the course of agency business.”
And Vermont’s open meetings law states, “At an open meeting, the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to express its opinion on matters considered by the public body during the meeting as long as order is maintained.”
During the council meeting on Sept. 26, which lasted a few hours, there were several exchanges between councilors, according to the results of the Freedom of Information Act request made to Mayor John Hollar last week.
The Times Argus was tipped off to the exchanges when Councilor Angela Timpone’s phone vibrated while the council was talking about a possible economic development committee. She picked up her phone and immediately looked at Councilor Andy Hooper, who was seen to be smirking.
Times Argus Editor Steven Pappas called for the FOIA request following last Wednesday’s meeting, citing the councilors’ actions as the equivalent of having “shadow discussions” during a public forum or “passing notes.”
“At a minimum,” Pappas said, “it’s rude. Anything worth saying in those instances should be stated out loud. The process must remain transparent to be effective.”
After filing the FOIA request, the provided results found that Hooper, Timpone, Councilor Thierry Guerlain and Councilor Tom
Golonka all had sent texts to other councilors during the meeting.
The Capital City has no policy against using phones or mobile devices during public meetings. But that could change.
According to the FOIA request results, provided by City Manager William Fraser earlier this week, the texts between Hooper and
Timpone are as follows:
[Hooper @ 7:29 p.m.] Jim Sheridan …
[Hooper] Arts fund recipient AND council member
[Timpone @ 9:21 p.m.] Jim can run against you now
[Hooper] Oh no!
She said the texts between her and Hooper were about former councilor Jim Sheridan and how he received an arts fund grant while he was a council member. They also sent texts about redistricting and how Sheridan is now in Hooper’s district.
Hooper did not return a call for comment to discuss the FOIA request or his electronic comments.
Timpone acknowledged Tuesday that texting during a council meeting is “probably not the best practice.”
Hooper also sent a text to Councilor Tom Golonka asking for a draft from the budget committee that Golonka is a member of about the presentation they plan to make to the council. Golonka also sent Hooper a draft from the recreation fund committee.
[Hooper @ 9:14 p.m.] Send me the draft pls
[Golonka] Just sent to your Cabot email
[Hooper] Ouch. Time to squeeze Rec
Golonka also did not return a call for comment.
Guerlain sent a text to Councilor Anne Watson about a comment she made during the meeting.
The text read, “Yes; good idea; I’d support waiving permitting fees for pellet stoves, weatherization, etc.”
Guerlain is out of the state and was not available for comment.
Timpone said the council is going to address this “texting” issue at its meeting next Wednesday.
“We are actually going to change the way we conduct meetings,” she said. “From now on, we are not even going to keep our phones on during a meeting.”
When pressed on whether the city council was going to adopt a policy about electronic devices, Timpone backpedaled.
“We don’t need a policy, per se,” she said. “We’re all adults and we should be able to remind ourselves (about using cellphones during meetings.)”
Fraser said he believes the council does, in fact, need a policy to address sending messages electronically during meetings, but could not offer suggestions about what it should say since he is not a council member.
Hollar agreed with Fraser that a policy is “probably a good idea.” But when told that other councilors were against a policy, Hollar agreed with them, as well. “I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other,” Hollar said. “I do think that it would be good for us to have as a practice and an understanding that councilors won’t text message or email during meetings.”
Councilor Alan Weiss, who admits he does not use technology the same way as his fellow councilors, said he was “100 percent opposed” to councilors sending text messages and emails during meetings.
“Conversations during a council meeting by councilors should be open so that each and every councilor has the opportunity to understand the points of view being expressed,” he said. “It’s an absolute violation of the public’s right to know. It’s a violation of the council’s premise that it wants to be transparent.”
Weiss said he was opposed to a formal policy, however.
“We’d probably spend six hours trying to word a policy, and then who is going to monitor it?” he said.
Steven Jeffery, executive director of Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said enforcing such a policy would be nearly impossible.
“There is nothing the council could do if (a councilor) wanted to flout (the policy),” Jeffery said, who also likened councilors sending texts during meetings to passing notes. “There is nothing that would allow them to ban (the councilor) from the City Council or require them to recuse themselves from any discussion.”
In August, Condos had to address the City Council to clarify the open meetings law because they were violating the law by holding meetings without properly warning city residents about them. The city also was found, following other FOIA requests, to have failed to notify the public about committee meetings.
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