Technology usage, electronic communication policies to be drafted for City Council

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published December 22, 2015



FRASER — In an effort to promote a higher level of transparency among city officials, one Fraser councilman has proposed that new language be drafted to coincide with the ever-changing high-tech world.

At the beginning of the Dec. 10 Fraser City Council meeting, Councilman Michael Lesich added a two-part item to the agenda requesting that council discuss and consider a technology usage policy for council members, as well as amend rules relating to instant messaging, texting, email and other forms of electronic communication during meetings.

The technology usage policy is already in effect for city employees but not for council members.

The original vote to add the item to the agenda was met a with 4-3 vote in favor of addition, with the ‘yes’ votes by Lesich, Councilwoman Kathy Blanke, Councilwoman Patrice Schornak and Councilman Mike Carnagie. Mayor Joe Nichols, Councilman Matt Hemelberg and Councilwoman Yvette Foster voted against it.

Lesich discussed why he added the item — which was discussed later in the meeting — to the agenda and said it was a way to stay consistent in a world that is constantly changing.

Blanke asked City Attorney Jack Dolan if members of other community boards that he represents send text messages during meetings, and he said he couldn’t say for sure. He did say he doesn’t see it too often.

She then called upon former Councilman Gil Harris to get his take, and he said he does not recall passing notes back and forth and he remembers how the council, years ago, considered the impending electronic age and how people could interact at home.

“Should I be able to text back to my wife or to another person? I think the answer to that should be — unless it’s an extreme emergency — that should not be appropriate,” Harris said.

Blanke added that it simply wasn’t “the polite thing to do.” 

“It’s not polite and it’s not professional,” she said. “The citizens of Fraser voted for (the council) to serve you.”

Hemelberg expressed hesitance, saying he has his own business and that other businessmen take their phones to meetings. He receives emails and doesn’t see what the problem is, as it doesn’t violate the Open Meetings Act, or OMA. He added that he uses calculator and calendar features on his phone, too.

Lesich responded by saying that he has watched meetings since 1996, and in the past, people showed up to make their own statement. He doesn’t think society has reached a point where phones should be used during meetings where business is being conducted.

Dolan added that being contacted by someone is not an automatic violation. However, if there are circumstances, in which council members are conversing about city business and not communicating verbally, that could pose a possible issue.

Nichols later said everybody has their own views and opinions about the topic and that texting in general is rude. But he added that people — whether present or not — should be able to be involved in meetings.

“My opinion is that there are rules and opinions about it, and if you follow those rules there are no problems,” Nichols said. “I agree with all council members that we are there to do city business. To try to restrict how voters communicate with us is not fair to us. If (people) want to bring up the OMA, just follow the current rules.”

He mentioned how one resident emailed him during the Dec. 10 meeting, saying that council members did not have their microphones on. He didn’t see the email until after the meeting, though, and it was too late.

And in regard to transparency in his administration, he said some residents like to pontificate their own views — often via social media.

“People in the community like to stir the pot without having to lick the spoon,” he said. “I welcome every person that is able to attend, and those that can’t attend should still have their voice heard. I never want to discourage residents who voted for me or other council members from speaking out.

“I don’t need rules to teach me common courtesy. There’s no sense in making more rules, because you’re only adding on to the problem. I certainly hope and believe that our council’s most pressing issues are not texting during meetings.”

Lesich said the issue is one of distraction, mentioning how one three-hour meeting per month is not a lot to ask for in terms of setting aside phones and focusing on city business.

He said it was a platform he ran on during his campaign for the two-year council seat, mentioning the OMA and how it can be easy to correct some things that may have plagued past administrations.

It’s harder than he thought it would be to get support, he said, and added that, as a resident, he would wait five hours to speak for five minutes at past meetings.

“If others want to retain their phones or be able to privately text message individuals during a meeting, I don’t feel good about that,” Lesich said. “We can discuss it and debate it.

“Our city council has to do business legally and we have a lot of issues coming up. I’d hate to discuss business and see someone send a text and then ask who they are texting. It’s really a matter of communicating with a party, one on one, as a member of a council.”

The motion eventually received unanimous approval from council. Dolan and City Manager Rich Haberman will work together to draft some type of language, which is hoped to be brought up in January.

“In a perfect world, a rule like this would be unnecessary,” Lesich said. “We don’t live in a perfect world.”