Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece has had it with her colleagues texting during City Council meetings, saying it is not only rude and disruptive but could lead to violations of California’s open meetings law.
Leece says that with their smart phones in hand, council members are able to keep from public view information that could influence decisions.
“I think that is detrimental to the whole process of having a meeting in public about the public’s business,” she said. It is not easy for residents to speak at meetings “and then have council members looking at their phones, texting. … It just sends a message of disrespect, in my opinion.”
Texting and emailing from the dais has become an issue for public bodies everywhere, and open-government advocates say there are likely many instances when such communications are a violation of the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs public meetings.
In recent years, a few jurisdictions have instituted bans, including the Northern California cities of Santa Rosa, Dixon and Saratoga. Leece proposed a policy at Tuesday’s council meeting that would have added Costa Mesa to this group.
Leece’s colleagues were largely uninterested in her proposal and would not second her motion, with one going so far as to suggest she was grandstanding. Leece is often the council’s lone dissident, especially in recent years as the issue of outsourcing has dominated the city’s politics.
“There are all kinds of ways to violate the Brown Act, so I don’t think that we need to legislate every possible way” of violating it, especially up on the dais, said Councilman Eric Bever, who added that he doesn’t have text messaging on his phone.
“With regard to council delays or interruptions, etc. that Member Leece raised, I would have to suggest that maybe we need to have an additional section if we’re going to go this route … that discourages grandstanding,” Bever said.
While Councilman Steve Mensinger didn’t support Leece’s motion Tuesday night, he did say aspects of her concerns are “salient” and he’s open to ideas.
However, Leece does have the support of at least one open-government expert. Terry Francke, general counsel for the First Amendment advocacy group Californians Aware, said text messaging and other electronic communication during meetings can be a serious problem, particularly if council members communicate with each other or members of the audience, such as lobbyists, who have an interest in what’s being discussed.
“I agree that for that reason, probably these devices should be banned during the meeting,” Francke said. Or, he said, a procedure could be developed “so that the public can be aware in real time of just what these people are doing” with their electronic devices.
“Until there’s some way for the public to in effect look over [the] shoulder of those who are using their devices to go outside the meeting, I think it’s probably a wise policy to simply ban their use by members of the body.”
Three city residents who frequently speak at meetings — Jay Humphrey, Tamar Goldmann, and Robin Leffler — supported Leece’s proposal.
“I find it very disconcerting to prepare and get up the nerve to come down here and speak and then find someone who’s so busy tapping away on a device that they can’t even meet my eyes,” Leffler said during the meeting. “When I can’t make eye contact with one of my council members, I wonder if they’re listening or if I’m being ignored.”
“It’s not complimentary. It’s not showing consideration to the person who’s speaking,” said Humphrey.
Leffler also described an instance in which a councilman noted during a meeting that a former councilwoman had just sent him a text message asking if she could be added to a task force. Leffler said that while the remark was amusing, it demonstrates that council members do receive and read text messages during meetings.