Ban texting during Dorchester County meetings? No way

SUMMERVILLE — Even by texting standards, this one was brief — and pointed.

Dorchester County Council cut off a motion to ban texting by council members at public meetings before it was even read. Councilman David Chinnis interrupted Councilman Larry Hargett as he spoke Monday. Chinnis called for the motion not to be considered. By meeting rules, that can be done with a two-thirds vote of council members.

“At least let me read it,” Hargett said as Council Chairman Bill Hearn asked County Attorney John Frampton to clarify how to proceed.

Chinnis’ call for the motion not to be considered was upheld, 5-1. Councilman Willie Davis abstained.

Hargett said earlier he wanted the ban out of concern that texting back and forth among members could violate the open meetings law.

“I’m raising the flag. We’ll see what council does with it,” he said.

But other council have bristled at recent moves by Hargett, including his changing his mind to oppose the local option sales tax being voted on Tuesday.

Council members do regularly text county officials and department heads for answers to questions raised during a meeting, and occasionally get texts from people in the audience, Chairman Bill Hearn said earlier.

“Last time I checked, we do live in the 21st century,” he said.

Council members texting during meetings hasn’t become a major issue among local governments, maybe just because common courtesy already handles it in advance, said Jay Bender, S.C. Press Association attorney. As far as the open meetings law goes, if the text applies to public business, it becomes part of the public record, he said. Council members discussing votes or polling each other would violate the law, and a council member taking direction on a vote from someone in the audience would be “even more nefarious,” he said

Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings brought up the issue in 2012 when council was reviewing basic rules on how council conducts business — rules that had been written well before the arrival of texting. Some members said they thought it inappropriate, but no restrictions were put in place, he said.

The practice is no different than staff members passing notes or other communications, he said.

“It’s been going on for hundreds of years,” he said. “Of course we should (text). We’re doing work. We have to communicate.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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