Don’t bother lobbying Spokane Valley City Council members by text message or email during meetings.
The city Tuesday became one of the first in the state to ban council members from using electronic messaging during council meetings, a move that backers say is designed to help ensure transparency in public debate.
“The spirit of this is we want to encourage people who want to communicate with us during a meeting to come to the meeting,” said Councilman Ed Pace, explaining private messages can give the wrong impression and risk usurping what are supposed to be public discussions.
Although city officials say there haven’t been any problems here, questions have arisen over improper usage elsewhere.
City leaders in Boulder, Colo., for example, imposed a ban last month after concerns were raised that some council members appeared to be reading from private email messages while proposing new amendments during contentious debates. In Washington, Olympia City Council members were caught using email during meetings to privately count votes and gauge support for potential amendments to controversial issues in 2009 rather than publicly discussing the options being considered.
Now, a small but growing number of cities nationwide are beginning to consider and adopt bans on electronic messaging during meetings, saying communication with council members during public meetings should be considered testimony that everyone has the benefit of considering.
“I think transparency is always a problem in government … and we’re in an electronic age,” Mayor Dean Grafos said. “I think we’re ahead of the curve by having this.”
The ban is included as part of an overall revamp of the city’s governance manual, which was approved by a 6-1 vote Tuesday night.
Smartphones and tablet computers have made council members easier to reach than ever, and city officials said they want to continue encouraging open communication, stressing that the ban is aimed only at electronic messaging during formal meetings.
Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard said the concern is “exclusivity of information” during a public proceeding that is supposed to draw on the observations and expertise of the entire council and others.
“I don’t think it would be very fair for me to be presenting my case with the benefit of an expert that everyone else hasn’t had the benefit of … hearing from and being able to ask questions they might have,” Woodard explained.
The city of Ferndale, north of Bellingham, is believed to be the first in Washington to adopt such a ban.
Ferndale City Clerk Sam Taylor said the goal was to “enhance transparency” after council members started using tablet computers to access electronic document packets prepared for each meeting rather than continuing to tote around large stacks of paper reports. Because the tablets also can be used to send and read email, city officials decided in 2012 to ban private electronic messaging during public meetings to make sure all testimony that council members were relying on was being made publicly.
In Spokane, no formal ban on messaging during council meetings has been imposed, but council members have been advised that the communication is subject to public disclosure laws, city spokesman Brian Coddington said.