The Petaluma City Council will again tackle the unexpectedly thorny issue of its members using electronic devices during meetings on Monday, this time with more technical information at their fingertips.
After Councilman Gabe Kearney’s use of his personal iPad to read city staff reports during a January Planning Commission meeting caused a tempest, he asked the council to formalize its unwritten policy that encouraged the use of technology to save money and city resources.
Other council members, Tiffany Renee and Mike Harris, have also used their iPads during meetings.
Kearney’s use, though, at a hearing about the controversial Deer Creek Village shopping center, sparked a conversation about transparency and raised suspicions in some quarters about what communications elected officials may be receiving during meetings.
The council discussed the issue in February, but got bogged down mostly on technology issues — what is possible to view with or without the Internet, what could be displayed for the public to see for themselves and what constitutes a public record.
The council seemed to support allowing electronic devices such as iPads, but with some restrictions. Renee favored a more wide-open approach, while Councilwoman Teresa Barrett wanted to restrict electronic communications even further than state law already restricts in-person contact between council members.
In the meantime, the city’s tech committee discussed the issue and reiterated its prior recommendation: that the city allow and encourage the use of technology, but restrict incoming and outgoing messaging from the dais except for emergencies.
Other options, including tracking of what each council member was viewing online or displaying that for the public, were deemed impractical or unfeasible financially or technologically.
The application Kearney said he was using, called iLegislate, can be used online or off. Using it connected to a network, he could download documents on the fly. Offline, he could only access documents he’d downloaded before turning off his network connection – a setting known as “airplane mode.”
In comparison, the county Board of Supervisors provided all its members with iPads, as did the town of Windsor. Other cities restrict messaging during meetings.
iPads and their brethren are “incredibly efficient in many ways,” tech committee Chair Jason Davies said. “But the point is for council members, it’s not about their convenience … as much as it’s about ensuring the public confidence.”
The conversation about using iPads snowballed into one about public trust, transparency and what Davies called “really unnecessary hyperbole.”
Kearney said he has felt attacked by the “progressive bloc” because he hasn’t always voted their way.
“We don’t have a rule, so I asked for a rule,” he said. “I can understand what their concerns are. But I did take an oath and promise to uphold it.
“The inference that I will, if given the opportunity if I use an iPad, violate that oath is quite silly. It’s insulting.”
Davies said his committee tried to provide the council with enough technical data that its members can make a decision this time.
“The discussion ranged from ‘no devices’ to ‘no restrictions,’” he said. “How can we come to a middle ground? To me, airplane mode seems to be a good way to go.”