It’s another Monday night meeting of the Denver City Council. Dozens of citizens have gathered in the ornate council chamber on the fourth floor of the City and County building for a controversial public hearing. It’s a time honored tradition (mandated for land use issues) that gives interested constituents three minutes at the podium to speak directly to elected officials and tell them what’s on their minds.
After waiting for the council to finish its regular business (which can take hours), the public hearing begins with the council president banging the gavel and in a scripted message instructing the audience: “As a courtesy to those in attendance, please turn off your cell phones and pagers.”
Sadly, the same rule does not apply to Denver’s 13 city council members, some who are often observed receiving e-mails and texting in the meeting. This raises a simple question: Why is it called a ‘public hearing’ if some council members are clearly not listening?
At one recent public hearing I observed several colleagues with hands below their desktop, eyes focused down, trying to hide their frantic texting during much of the public hearing. The president called each speaker by name to the podium located a few steps from council members. But even the close proximity didn’t matter. Texting continued as some members seemed oblivious to the speakers — a behavior that clearly irked many in the audience.
“I paid a baby sitter so I could be here tonight, paid to park and sit on hard benches for three hours so that I could get my three minutes at the mic. It really bothered me that some of the council members were not paying attention. They were busy texting on their BlackBerries. It was rude and a waste of my time,” one frustrated speaker told me.
This is one of those situations where you have to be in the chamber to fully comprehend what’s going on. All council meetings are televised live on Denver 8 TV and repeated several times during the week. The cameras don’t pan the 13 council members but focus on the speakers during public hearings. If a camera focused for a minute or two on a council member texting it would generate outrage among viewers.
But this issue is about more than just the distraction and rudeness of texting.
Skirting Open Records Law
State and city officials receiving text messages during meetings have become increasingly common. It’s time we adopt rules that ensure our open-meetings laws and disclosure rules (all which require decisions and most deliberations to be public) keep pace with the changing technology of the digital age.
In a recent Detroit News article, Robin Herrmann, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, said electronic communication could keep information from the public.
“Before the use of all these devices, if a member of a public body had a question for their council, they would say it out loud. If two people are texting and it has to do with the business of the public body, that sort of communication — which is informing their decisions — should take place in public,” Hermann maintains.
Many states and cities have adopted their own rules at a time when officials are increasingly fielding requests for lawmakers’ cell phone records, e-mails and text messages.
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed believes, “Essentially what we’ve said is a public record, no matter where it exists.”
Former San Francisco mayor and now California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, a strong advocate for banning texting at city meetings, believes city officials are being unfairly influenced by lobbyists’ texts. “There’s no transparency,” Newsom said. “No one’s walking to the microphone to say, ‘Here’s what I think’ and identifying themselves.”
Closer to home, Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Jenifer Flanagan believes, “The core of our open meetings law is to ensure that decisions are made through public deliberations. People rightfully have an expectation that they will be heard when coming to participate at a public meeting,” she said.
“Allowing the use of texting and other electronic communications is problematic no matter how you look at it. If it is related to the public discourse, it violates the open meetings law. If it is not, for example checking game scores or doing other work, then it’s just disrespectful,” Flanagan believes.
Mayor Michael Hancock agrees. “As a former Denver City Councilman, I think it’s a good idea to limit the use of cell phones during public hearings. It’s about being courteous to your fellow council members, and to those who have come to speak before the Council, by giving your full attention.”
“The Colorado Senate completely prohibits texting in the Senate chambers and in all other official meetings,” according to Denver Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell. “The House rule, however, is more liberal,” he notes. The Denver City Council rule book is silent. “Currently, there is nothing whatsoever in the council rules about the use of electronic devices during meetings,” Broadwell says.
We can fix this. We can change our council rules and say “c ya” to text messaging and e-mail during city council public meetings. In early November I will bring a proposed rule change to the full council. If you are in agreement to this change, please contact your council member urging support.
A ban shows we practice good manners; it would reinforce our belief that citizens presenting at council meetings will be heard and their time valued and, most important, it would be a reminder that the Denver City Council hasn’t forgotten for whom we work.
Councilman Charlie Brown represents South Denver on Denver City Council. The 12-year veteran is currently serving his “Final Four” years on council. A vote on his proposed rule change by the full council will take place in early November.