Michigan communities join other cities, states in banning electronic communication during public meetings

Tweeting, texting, blogging and answering email are all activities that have become ubiquitous over the course of the day. However, many people find that engaging in these activities while in meetings or in other settings requiring focused attention is unprofessional and even rude. Recently, more state legislatures and city councils have taken up this debate as a growing number of public officials are tweeting, texting and emailing while doing the public’s business. Just this week, several communities in Michigan joined together in asking local councilors and lawmakers to refrain from engaging in these activities while in session.

A small group of communities in southeastern Michigan are calling on council members to leave their laptops and smartphones behind while in session. Citing potential violations of open meeting rules and a lack of attention during meetings, several city councils have started amending their rules to ban electronic communication during meetings.

Supporters of the ban say that if council members are emailing or texting with each other during meetings it is likely they are discussing the issue at hand, an activity which potentially violates open meetings rules if these communications remain private. Additionally, supporters say, if councilors aren’t discussing the topic before them, then they are failing to conduct the public’s business which is unprofessional.

CivSource reported last year on similar bans in the California state assembly as well as one California municipality. Both cases cited concerns about the effect of texting on sunshine laws and potentially inappropriate conversations with lobbyists during public meetings.

In May, the Texas legislature took up the issue of texting and its impact on the state’s open meetings laws. Lawyers working with city councils in Tennessee have also advised councilors to avoid live updates during meetings based on how that state’s open meetings law is worded.

Support for government transparency is strong. Earlier this year, Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert was forced to recall a bill that exempted many electronic communications from the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). After a public battle over the exemption, the Governor eventually recalled the bill and asked the legislature to find a different solution.

Together these moves appear to signal a growing understanding that while texting, tweets, email and blog posts may make for easier and more rapid communications sunshine laws will need to catch up to determine how to handle these communications in order to maintain transparency.

“It’s about maintaining the integrity of this council and future councils,” said Maria Schmidt, a city councilwoman in Sterling Heights, in a Detroit News piece outlining the ban. Sterling Heights amended its council governing rules earlier this year to ban electronic communication during meetings.