Rochester eyes new electronic device policy

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published September 4, 2018

ROCHESTER —  In this age of technology, most people have their smartphones and laptops available at a moment’s notice, but if they aren’t used correctly, such gadgets can cause problems.

The Rochester City Council uses laptops — accompanied at times by the occasional smartphone — to access agenda packets and additional information during council meetings.

Councilman Dean Bevacqua said he likes having the internet on hand as council hashes things out.

“If something comes up where geography is mentioned, it’s nice to be able to go on Google Maps and go on my computer and look at things,” he said.

Despite that convenience, some argue that smartphones and other electronics are a distraction — especially at work.

Mayor Pro Tem Kim Russell has some concerns about the use of electronics during council meetings. Russell is hoping the city will implement a new electronic device policy — which the council discussed July 23 — to help clarify how such devices should be used in council chambers.

“My intent for this piece of policy is a lot of electronic devices have changed in the last 10 years. There’s been a lot of talk at the state, county and other municipal areas,” she said. “For instance, if we are making a decision and we have our computers up here and someone downloads a report, we can’t vet it all out together because someone is looking at a report, so it takes time. We all need to have the same information.”

Russell said council members could potentially violate the Open Meetings Act via text or email activity during meetings, another reason she is hoping to set the policy.

For example, if two or more council members engage in group texting or emailing on a particular topic, it could constitute deliberation on official matters, which Rochester City Attorney Jeffrey Kragt said could potentially be a violation of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.

The OMA, Kragt said, requires deliberations to occur in public meetings, with some specific exemptions. In the instance of an exemption, the council must vote to go into closed session. In a closed session, he said, the council may only discuss the matter specified in the motion and must avoid coming to a decision. All decisions must be made and votes taken in open session.

Kragt said the Rochester City Council has not run into any problems with its electronics usage thus far and said he doesn’t know of very many municipalities that have adopted electronic device policies.

“I think it’s a dead issue,” he said.

 But Russell said that setting a policy is a great way to ensure that there are no problems in the future.

“We don’t have a problem yet,” she said. “When we’re setting policy, it’s not for now — it’s for into the future. You want to set policy when you don’t have a problem.”

Others on the council had differing opinions.

“I appreciate the intent of this, but to me it’s a solution in search of a problem, and I generally dislike those,” Councilman Ben Giovanelli said. “It’s either we go back to all paper packets and have the cops stop by to drop them off and have no electronics up here, or we just agree to be adults. … It’s way too oppressive for my taste.”

Councilwoman Nancy Salvia was also opposed to setting an official electronics use policy.

“Before we consider any sort of regulation on this, perhaps we should look at best practices or even some written training that the city manager could include in our packet in terms of what are the expectations around this. I don’t really want to regulate something. I’d rather just let good common sense, good behavior, dictate — as long as we are educated on the topic,” Salvia said.

Councilman Stuart Bikson said he also feels that setting such a policy is a solution looking for a problem.

“To me, all the people up here were elected by the people. It’s not my responsibility or my job to tell someone else how to act — and I don’t want someone telling me how to act. So I think this is completely unnecessary,” he said.

Still, Russell said she wants administrators to provide the council with some guidelines on acceptable use.

“I think maybe the good practices is a way to start … just really covering all of our bases when we are using our devices,” she said during the meeting. “I feel that this is important. If the rest of you don’t — I did what I felt was important.”

City Manager Blaine Wing said he will work with the city clerk to come up with some general guidelines of electronic use, which he plans to include in an upcoming city manager’s report.