Public Officials: No Texting Please

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener

We support Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt in his recent ruling forbidding public officials from conducting public business by text.
The matter arose out of a Terre Haute City Council budget hearing after the redevelopment director in that city objected to texting by council members during his presentation. The Tribune-Star, based in Terre Haute, asked Britt his opinion about public officials using cell phone text messages to communicate with each other during a public meeting.
Britt had little trouble ruling that officials communicating with text messages about issues before them would violate both the spirit and letter of Indiana law. “I would definitely consider it a violation of the Open Door Law,” Britt told the Tribune-Star. “I would definitely consider that closed-door communication.”
Here in Crothersville and Jackson County we have been in public meetings where phones set on vibrate buzz and whirr prior to an elected official viewing and sometimes responding. Maybe it was a spouse asking them to bring home some bread and milk or a child checking in with a parent; maybe it was the elected official using the calculator function on their phone to come up with a a solution to a financial matter; maybe it was a consultant or another elected official quietly and very privately in a public meeting stating a point on the matter being discussed. We’ll never know.
Of course we agree with the Access Counselor because it obviously is a violation to do public business outside of the public’s ears and eyes. Group e-mails or texts to board or committee members to discuss or confirm positions is a violation of the Indiana Open Door Law. Do those kinds of things occur in Jackson County? We don’t know because-so far- cell phone texts and emails on public business are conducted on privately owned electronic equipment and not subject to public inspection.
We hope that elected officials put their phones away before the public meeting starts. And we acknowledge that it may be a simple way to communicate that a presenter at the meeting is stuck in traffic and is running late. (That actually happened very recently and very innocently.)
In town council meetings we have observed some members of the public attending the meeting fiddling with phones followed by a buzz or chim on another’s meeting attendee’s phone. Whether they were communicating about the subject being discussed or commenting on the length of the meeting we won’t know. What they did is not illegal; they are not the elected official. But it is rude.
Texting while driving is against the law. Texting while an official in a public meeting should, at the very least, be an informal violation of decorum that whomever is running the meeting should stop.
Just as we wouldn’t tolerate public officials passing notes across the conference table or whispering to one another during a public meeting (but it sometimes happens), we need to blow the whistle on public meeting texting before the problem develops.
Eventually courts might have to decide whether a private cell phone becomes open to public inspection because it has been misused as a vehicle to avoid public scrutiny of the public’s business.
Technology doesn’t always make life easier. Sometimes it complicates.
The Tribune-Star and Chronicle Tribune contributed to this column.