They serve as alarm clocks, calendars, meeting reminders, notepads and music devices. They connect us to the world through social media and yes, they are sometimes still used to make a phone call.
Cellphones and tablets have quickly become part of daily life, and with them the line between public and personal communication among elected officials can blur.
Use of the gadgets during public meetings can give an impression of improper contact or vote stacking. It also can simply come across as a rude breach of decorum.
That’s why the DuPont City Council last week banned council members from using personal electronic devices at public meetings. The action in the South Pierce County community appears to be unprecedented in South Sound.
“If there’s the appearance of impropriety, rather than have that suspicion arise we wanted to take care of it proactively,” said DuPont Councilman Michael Gorski.
One council member previously voiced concerns to the mayor about a colleague texting at a meeting. Gorski has seen cellphones used, but said without looking at the screen he doesn’t know what for.
City leaders said they’re not aware of any public complaints about use of cellphones or tablets during meetings.
The ban – approved 6 to 1 with Councilwoman Penny Coffey opposed – eliminates any question about council members texting or emailing each other about city business, or communicating with people in the audience during meetings.
Using these devices is the digital-age version of passing handwritten notes — something that is still sometimes done at government meetings around South Sound.
Passing notes or sending emails between elected officials during a public meeting is not considered an “outright violation” of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, but those actions can stray into a violation if a majority of an elected body takes action during the course of the unspoken discussion, according to the Freedom Foundation’s Best Practices for Public Agency Compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act.
Public business should be conducted openly and not through emails or text messages, according to the document.
State law doesn’t ban the use of electronic devices during public meetings, leaving it up to each municipality to regulate their use, said Kimberly Matej, spokeswoman for the Association of Washington Cities.
The debate about how to regulate personal devices has surfaced among cities across the state, but few have enacted bans like DuPont, said Jim Doherty, legal consultant with the Municipal Research and Services Center.
DuPont used policy language from the cities of Spokane Valley and Ferndale to frame its policy.
Tacoma and Lakewood, Pierce County’s two largest cities, don’t have regulations on personal cellphone use from the dais. Neither do Puyallup, University Place or Gig Harbor.
That leaves many elected officials around the area free to check their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.
Tacoma Councilman Robert Thoms said he has used his device to email someone in the audience to thank them for attending. He also has used his iPad to complete city business or to look up policy during meetings.
The Lakewood City Council recently began using city-issued iPads so council members can access city packets, calendars and city email accounts. The move was done to save on printing costs and increase efficiencies.
Six years ago, former Lakewood Councilman Walter Neary drew fire from some in the community when he blogged from the dais while people were addressing the Lakewood council. Complaints came from citizens and not the council, said Mayor Don Anderson. The council hasn’t discussed the issue since then, he said.
“It’s no big deal if somebody texts their spouse to say they won’t be home for dinner because we’re running late,” Anderson said.