Texting while meeting is dangerous, too

Posted Thursday, Mar. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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You see that school board member up there, looking down while others are discussing an important issue? Is he texting a friend about dinner after the meeting? Getting instructions from a lobbyist or campaign donor? Coordinating with a fellow trustee on how they'll vote?

The first one is inconsiderate. The second smacks of dishonesty. And the third flouts the principle of open government.

There's nothing in Texas law that would prevent any of those activities. But HB2934, by state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would change that.

The bill, which is set for a hearing Monday in the Government Efficiency & Reform Committee, would make it a Texas Open Meetings Act violation for officials to deliberate secretly during a public meeting via texts, emails, Internet postings or instant messages.

The proposal would also make those electronic communications subject to disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act.

The measure wouldn't apply to personal messages with family, emergencies or "administrative or ministerial information," such as checking the time of a meeting.

But it would cover messages not just by officials but also by their staff members if they pertain to public business -- and apply to both taxpayer-provided devices and private electronics if official business is involved.

It might sound heavy-handed, but consider the damage that public officials cause to public trust with irresponsible texting while meeting.

In 2010, a lawyer whose firm was competing for a lucrative contract with the Fort Worth school district was texting with some board members during the meeting at which trustees decided to award the contract to his firm.

Last fall, the Travis County attorney wrapped up a two-year investigation of the Austin City Council with the conclusion that members "regularly deliberated outside of the public's purview by use of almost every modern communication medium that exists," frequently violating the Open Meetings Act. (bit.ly/VG7itj)

The idea is not to stifle public officials, but to make sure they are transparent in their actions, not just their rhetoric.

In fact, the Senate Open Government Committee on Wednesday passed SB1297, which would let members of public bodies talk with each other through online message boards that are accessible for the public to read. Formal actions would still have to be taken during public meetings.

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