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BROCKTON

Council may ban texting

Tech use during meetings at issue

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / January 30, 2011

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Peeking at a laptop or text messaging on a cellphone could get Brockton city councilors ejected from council meetings.

This stern penalty is the idea of Ward 2 Councilor Thomas Monahan, who said the policy would set a standard for decorum, reduce disruptions, and ensure members are not violating the state’s Open Meeting Law.

“I have seen other councils around the country look into the same matter, and it seems to be a gray area,’’ he said. “I just think that in these times of government transparency that even if we are not in violation, we do not want to even give the slightest perception that we may be.’’

Under the policy, councilors could not send text messages, e-mail, or other communication during a meeting on issues before them, and they would be prohibited from using computers during meetings. Violators could be ordered from the room by the council president for the remainder of the meeting.

A date hasn’t been set for Monahan’s proposal to go before the city’s Ordinance Committee.

Whenever it is taken up, it will be adamantly opposed by Ward 6 Councilor Michelle DuBois, who said Monahan’s idea is either an “old boy maneuver’’ to restrict information or based on a fear of technology. DuBois said the proposal surfaced after she used her iPhone during a recent hearing to obtain information that supports her argument against increasing residential property taxes.

“This is an attempt to block information from coming to the council floor, limit public debate and information sharing,’’ said DuBois. “And it’s a personal slap at progressive councilors.’’

She added that the proposed sanction isn’t proportionate to the offense.

“Removing a city councilor from a council meeting is typically reserved for the most egregious acts or misconduct,’’ she said. “Kicking elected officials out for such silly things is a violation of our democracy and limits representation for every citizen that city councilor represents.’’

In Brockton, city councilors often leave their seats and wander around the chamber during meetings, whispering with each other and the public. While texting and using electronic gadgets appears far less common, Councilor-at-Large Thomas Brophy said some colleagues are routinely seen with their heads down, not paying attention as they focus on their electronic devices.

“The main concern is fear that the councilors are being coached by the audience,’’ whether in the chamber or home watching on TV, Brophy said. “I don’t want to limit information gathering, but texting is stealth. And we can’t have that.’’

A councilor should conduct research before the meeting, said Brophy, who added that copies of the Massachusetts Generals Laws are usually on hand, and the council’s legislative lawyer is often present.

Another question is compliance with the Open Meeting Law. In Massachusetts, communication among elected officials is regulated by that law, “regardless of new technologies,’’ according to Harry Pierre, a spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley.

And while the law does not prohibit the use of electronic devices in general, their use is more problematic, he said. During a meeting, for example, a councilor could send other councilors an e-mail that the public couldn’t view or obtain.

Further, written notes sent via text message or passed on paper among officials during a public meeting are also subject to the state’s Freedom of Information laws, officials said.

“It’s a real dilemma to try to make effective use of communication and keep a sense of open government,’’ said James Lampke, an attorney who is executive director of the state City Solicitors and Town Counsel Association, based in Hingham.

As a general rule, Lampke said, a board like the Brockton City Council is free to adopt reasonable rules and regulations to conduct its business.

“But certain discussions should be out in the open,’’ he said. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with a constituent wanting to send a message to his elected representative, he said, “If someone is weighing in on something, they should do it at a meeting.’’

Most communities have some informal policy of asking people to be courteous and refrain from cellphone use during meetings. Few have taken it a step further. Last fall, Lowell, Lawrence, and Revere considered proposals to ban cellphones and other hand-held devices that some residents found distracting. None of those motions passed.

Monahan’s proposal is modeled on an ordinance passed 7-0 last October by the City Council in Gresham, Ore. The city’s communications director, Laura Shepard, said the policy has caused no waves. “It was implemented and is being followed,” she said.

Brockton Councilor-at-Large Jass Stewart said he spoke with Monahan about his concern that councilors are being used as proxies for third parties who are trying to participate in, or direct, public conversations. Stewart agrees that this isn’t appropriate.

“But I’m likely not to support this unless there is some mechanism in place where a councilor can get access to the Internet for research,’’ he said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.