MOUNT PLEASANT — Call it a position paper for the 21st century: The town is preparing a memo for how its elected and appointed officials should — and shouldn’t — handle their cellphones during public meetings.
Just months after Town Council passed the Lowcountry’s first ordinance against texting while driving, its staff is expected to advise officials about how to prevent electronic devices from disturbing their colleagues, bothering the public and even crossing a legal line.
“No texting while driving. No texting while counciling — this is a no-texting town,” Councilman Chris Nickels said. “I think I’m guilty of this as well. You hear the ding or feel the vibration and it’s almost like you can’t resist.”
While Nickels was joking, Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall was serious Monday about her observation that her colleagues’ phone use can get out of hand.
“Personally speaking, it’s disturbing to me, and in my opinion, it’s disrespectful to other council members engaged in the town’s business,” she said, adding that she requested that the town’s Police, Judicial and Legal Committee discuss a code of conduct for how council members should act during public meetings.
New Mayor Linda Page said she also has sat next to “electronically busy” council members, and said the issue is one of general respect.
“It should be a broader discussion,” she said, “and should include how you’re respectful to people you’re working with and to employees.”
Page said sitting next to someone busily using a phone is “difficult,” but so is treating other colleagues with little respect or calling about town business late at night when there’s no emergency.
Nickels said the problem is not that cellphones are used, but that they’re sometimes misused. If a council member is using a phone to research the topic under discussion, then that’s probably fine, but if the member is sending a private communication to someone in the audience, such as someone vying for town business, that’s not.
He wondered if texts and emails sent by a council member during a public meeting were subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said Nickels’ concern is valid, “particularly if they’re texting or sending emails to other members of council discussing a matter before the body. ... It would be a closer question if it were not related to town business.”
The issue has arisen elsewhere. Dorchester County Council briefly considered — but shot down — a motion last month that would ban texting by council members at public meetings.
Councilman Elton Carrier joked that he is the retired guy who doesn’t use electronics, but he agreed that council members could benefit from “a reminder of who we are and what we are and that we’re here to do business at the times we are here.”
Page said she did not think it necessary for council to approve a formal code of conduct or ordinance, but the committee agreed that Town Administrator Eric DeMoura and Town Attorney David Pagliarini will prepare a position paper advising council on the subject. DeMoura said the paper also could be shared with volunteers who serve on the town’s boards and commissions.
The issue arose during the first committee meetings since Page was elected mayor and rearranged council’s committees. One of her challengers, former Councilman Joe Bustos, criticized Page’s committee assignments in a letter to this newspaper’s editor Monday, but Page said she hasn’t heard any negative feedback.
She said she would not revisit committee appointments for at least a year, adding, “I thought the committees ran very nicely today.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.