Councillor hoped to limit smart phone use during meetings

Petrina Arnason concerned practice can lead to ‘distracted listening’

Langley Township Coun. Petrina Arnason thinks there should be limits on the use of smart phones and social media by council members during meetings.

She’s in the minority, but she’s hoping the rest of council will come around once they’ve had a chance to consider the issue.

Right now, there is no policy governing the use of internet-capable phones by councillors during council meetings, nor are there any guidelines concerning the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter while a meeting is underway (Langley City also has no policy governing smart phone use by councillors during meetings).

“I call it distracted listening,” Arnason said, following the Dec. 14 vote that defeated her proposal to ban the use of smart phones by councillors during council meetings for a year (the ban would not have applied to members of the public in the audience of the council chamber).

Arnason said her proposal was a response to the concerns of some citizens, who told her they felt councillors were not paying attention during public meetings because they were on their phones.

Arnason’s written resolution said the use of smart phones by councillors during meetings was “distracting and impedes one’s ability to focus on business … (was) not conducive to public transparency … (and) could raise the apprehension of impropriety.”

During the discussion that led up to the vote, the rest of council disagreed with the ban, but agreed the issue needed more exploring.

Among the speakers was Coun. Blair Whitmarsh, who said he keeps notes on his phone, which he refers to during meetings.

“They (smart phones) are part of how we do business,” Whitmarsh said.

Councillor David Davis said he has used his smart phone twice during council meetings, once to respond to a family emergency, and he hoped other councillors would have the “common sense” to limit their use.

Arnason said her research shows some American cities have opted to restrict the use of smart phones out of concern that council members could be lobbied by text messages during a debate.

Last October, Jacksonville City council in Florida banned all texting by council members during meetings.

The move came after three Jacksonville City council members changed their vote on a proposal to demote 17 fire chiefs to lower ranks as a cost-saving measure.

They did it after receiving texts during the meeting from the president of the firefighters union.

A taxpayers group sued, arguing the texting was a violation of the so-called “sunshine law” that requires open government.