“Lowell Live Feed” joins blogosphere

Welcome – or welcome back – to Jack Mitchell. He’s rejoined the Lowell blogosphere after a very brief hiatus by launching his own site called “Lowell Live Feed.” His first post, “Inaugural”, lays out his objectives for the site and also breaks some news with a story about an erroneously addressed text message sent by a city councilor during a council meeting.

It’s ironic that Jack should today post news about a city councilor texting during a meeting. Just yesterday in my post reviewing the Lowell blogosphere I predicted, towards the end of the post, that the council that takes office today will tend to be averse to modern means of communication citing a recent controversy over email and a past controversy over texting during city council meetings. For those who weren’t here back in 2008, I dug through my blog archives (which due to past technical problems are not available online but thankfully we back things up regularly) and found the following post which I wrote back in June of 2008.

(Following from a June 2008 blog post) Like most legislative bodies, the council polices itself, a process that usually works quite well, relegating the procedural rules to the background and letting substance dominate the debate. But this summer, for some reason, the council has started fighting about the rules and, like the occasional pickup basketball game between two long-time opponents who dislike each other and carry much baggage from prior matches, the meetings have been longer, more rulings are being disputed and there’s been more – I don’t want to say “trash-talking” – but the rhetoric has grown more heated and personal.

A motion by Rita Mercier at the June 10th meeting to “prohibit the use of cell phones and/or any communications device during regular, special or any other city council meeting” ignited the most recent controversy. In explaining the motion, Mercier said the use of cell phones during meetings “created a negative appearance and cast a dark shadow over the city council.” She said it was apparent that some councilors were sending text messages to other councilors during meetings, adding “I’m all for socializing, but during the city council meeting is not the place for such behavior.” Mercier also commented that such communications possibly violated the state’s Open Meeting Law. Mercier went on: “How many times do we take our cell phone out of our pocket and go to the cloak room as if we can’t make a decision on our own without being directed by someone else who called to offer a new question to be asked? It’s unprofessional.”

Councilor Mike Lenzi seconded the motion, commenting that it was an issue of professional courtesy. Using cell phones during meetings “sets a bad precedent. There are important things being said and everyone should be paying attention.” Councilor Alan Kazanjian also supported the motion, saying that in the 15 years he served on the Board of Appeals before becoming a councilor last January, he never once saw anyone use a cell phone during a meeting. He said he was “taken aback” by city councilors using cell phones during meetings and that they should not be used out of “professional courtesy.” Councilor Armand Mercier also spoke in favor of the ban, saying that he always turned off his phone at the start of the meeting and that talk of using cell phones to access information during meetings was a “red herring.”

While Mayor Bud Caulfield did not expressly state his position, he strongly implied that he supported the motion when he responded to a suggestion by Councilor Kevin Broderick that they should obtain guidance from the District Attorney’s Office regarding cell phones and compliance with the Open Meeting Law by saying “It doesn’t matter what the DA says, councilor. If five councilors say there will be no cell phones, there will be no cell phones.” But that’s not necessarily true, since a rules change (as I understand it, at least) would require six votes and the four remaining councilors all expressed reservations about an outright ban on the use of electronic devices.

Councilor Kevin Broderick, who many suspect was the primary target of Mercier’s motion, acknowledged that he did occasionally use the text message capability of his phone during council meetings, suggested this was a case of some councilors being more comfortable than others with advances in communications technology. He acknowledged the need to update council rules to address the use of email and text messaging but said that many of his constituents contacted him via those methods and they expected a rapid response. Broderick also said he should be able to use the internet access provided by his cell phone to go online to retrieve information relevant to the matter being discussed at the meeting.

Councilor Jim Milinazzo was critical of Mercier’s motion, saying that he, Mercier and Broderick had all discussed the matter in a collegial and light-hearted way just days earlier. As far as he was concerned, the matter had been appropriately addressed in that informal manner and that raising it again as a formal motion was “disappointing.”