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For Some Michigan Communities, Public Equals Not Online

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, July 7 2011

CivSource Online editor Bailey McCann catches this Detroit News item about communites in southeastern Michigan who are barring public officials from electronic communications at public meetings:

Supporters say the issue is about transparency and integrity, not to mention common courtesy. They argue email or even text conversations could violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act, which requires decisions and most deliberations to be public.

"It's about maintaining the integrity of this council and future councils," said Maria Schmidt, a city councilwoman in Sterling Heights, which amended its council governing rules earlier this year to ban electronic communication during meetings.

But critics of the bans say technology helps these officials do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. They call the bans "short-sighted."

"We've never had an issue come to our attention with commissioners texting or emailing during meetings, so why do we need these broad prohibitions?" said Royal Oak Commissioner Jim Rasor. "To prevent the appearance of impropriety when none exists? Don't we have better things to do?"

The News' Maureen Feighan drags up a 2009 case in which emails exchanged by Ann Arbor officials during a meeting, released after legal action, reveal that council members there had deliberated about an agenda item, mocked constituents and the mayor, and drafted a fundraising letter. This is not an isolated case; I've written before on how almost the same story could be told about the City of Austin, Texas, in a flap that unfolded earlier this year.

McCann notes that similar bans are in place in the California state assembly and at least one municipality, and has been considered in Texas and Tennessee. She also has an update on the state of play in Utah, where the open records laws are being revisited for the 21st century.

Not everyone is going in the "ban it" direction, however. In North Carolina, one town has moved the entire town commission to iPads, and requires emails pertaining to public business be archived with the town for regular disclosure dumps. In Revere, Mass., Councilor-at-Large George Rotondo reads emails from constituents aloud during public meetings.

As McCann notes, cities and states are beginning to believe that the way communications media have changed in the last 20 years warrants a re-evaluation of what becomes public record and how it gets there.