Archive for October 2nd, 2007

by Pete Talbot

OK now, let’s all take a deep breath. The city council’s email “scandal” is getting way out of hand.

I actually believe that the legality of emailing during city council meetings (vis-à-vis Montana’s open meeting law) is worth looking into.

There isn’t a specific law against emailing that’s on the books now, that I’m aware of. The law was written before laptops and email existed. So, nobody is breaking the law. I believe that any ruling will come from a new interpretation of the open meeting law as it now reads.

Is emailing during council meetings rude? I suppose so. It depends at what point during the meeting that it takes place. I know how p.o.’d my wife gets when she’s trying to have a conversation with me and I’m blogging away.

The conservatives are going ballistic over this, however, and will no doubt make it a campaign issue. Of course there are more important problems that council members should be debating but since the Missoulian has made this a front-page story two days in a row, I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.

One thought occurs to me. It seems like it’s the younger, more computer savvy folks who are doing the emailing (for example, Ward Three’s Bob Jaffe runs a computer database business). This is how these folks communicate all the time, whether they’re at work, home or city council meetings. You should see my daughter, her laptop seems to be a natural extension of her arms.

The older folks on council communicate the old-fashioned way: notes, whispers, pie and coffee after the meeting.

In part, this controversy might be a generational thing.

I can’t blame council members for emailing during meetings — council meetings can be long and repetitious — but they should stop doing it until City Attorney Jim Nugent gives his opinion. I’m guessing it’s not illegal because the public has access to the emails in question, but I’m not a lawyer.

If Nugent says that emailing between council members during meetings is a violation of open meeting laws, then it will stop. If it isn’t a violation, then council will continue to do it but I would hope that our aldermen and women would refrain while the public is making comments, for the sake of decorum. I hope the note passing and whispering during public comment would cease, too.

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