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iPads: To Use or Not Use at Public Meetings?

Council unable to reach agreement on electronic device policy

Despite a recommendation from city staff to not allow council members to use iPads to send and receive messages at meetings, the council failed to reach consensus on the topic Monday and will pick it up again next month.

Council members Gabe Kearney, Tiffany Renee and Mike Harris all favor the use of iPads at city meetings and say the devices make it easier to access documents, look up information during discussions and eliminate the need to carry heavy stacks of paper. 

But others say they are concerned that council members with iPads can send and receive messages from residents, or worse, lobbyists on sensitive issues in violation of the Brown Act, that requires that city meetings be open and public.

For Mayor Dave Glass, the issue comes down to trust.

“I don’t have an iPad and I won’t be getting one, but to me it’s about how do we assure the public that there isn’t outside communication coming in?” Glass said. “It’s a game changer and some people don’t trust it.”

Renee, who has an iPad that she uses for both her job as a web developer and for city business, said that the implication that council members would be more likely to break the law if they had access to iPads is wrong.

“I took an oath when I took office and…now suddenly something has changed because we are talking about using an iPad?” Renee said. “Some of these policies really get into a nanny state, so do we also have people who follow us around (to make sure council members don’t discuss city business in groups?) The information age is here and it’s very useful.”

The use of iPads on the dais became an issue when Petaluma Planning Commissioner Dennis Elias questioned Councilman Gabe Kearney’s use of an iPad at a January meeting about the proposed .

Kearney, a city liason on the planning commission, said he was saving city time and the environment by reading the lengthy Final Environmental Impact Report on his electronic device, but Elias said he was concerned about transparency. In the end, Kearney agreed to shelf his iPad for the duration of the meeting.

On Monday, Kearney spoke about the benefits of having an iPad, including a password feature that could prevent confidential information from being accessed if the device was lost.

“If I were to leave my iPad at , I would be able to access it remotely and scrub it clean unlike if I left my briefcase at the coffee shop,” Kearney said.

Despite the benefits, Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said it was imperative that council members not be allowed to receive or send email during meetings, something that could be accomplished by switching a device to "Airplane Mode."

But Councilman Mike Harris pointed out that if an iPad was offline, it would no longer populate iLegislate, an app council members with iPads use to read their council packets. Renee, too, disagreed with the idea, saying that not allowing online access curtailed members’ ability to research relevant data.

“We’re limiting ourselves and limiting the technology if we start to shrink down the parameters of the technology we can use,” she said.

CLARIFICATION: iLegislate enables users to review meeting materials before, during or after a meeting from any location and does not need an internet connection. For more info, click here.

What's your take? Should the City Council and other public bodies be able to use their iPads during meetings? Should the city issue iPads for council members? Sound off in the comments below and don't forget to take our poll on the issue.

George Barich February 07, 2012 at 04:54 PM
To use an ipad during a city council meeting is no different than having a cell phone attached to your head. The idea of allowing its use is ridiculous and gives the appearance of impropriety and is in violation of The Brown Act, if I am not mistaken. Any devise which is capable of communicating with those outside the city council chambers or between council members during a deliberation of an item should be prohibited as a communication devise. How long will it be before council members put each item on the agenda on their FB pages with a LIKE button which will show them where all their "friends" stand on the issue as they watch it on TV during deliberation? The opportunities for misuse is mind boggling. And to say just because an elected official has taken an oath of office, sworn to act in the public trust, and therefore are incapable of violating that oath is laughable. I also don't want anyone accusing council members of surfing the web, texting their friends and family, or watching porn when they should be listening to me, the taxpayer, when I am addressing them at the podium. If you are addicted to your smart phone or i-pad to needing it during a council meeting, seek a mental health provider for the sake of the community and get a grip on yourself.
Yannick A. Phillips February 07, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Why couldn't the Council not agree on sharing ONE IPad during the meeting...??! That would solve it....still get to use it, but it's a 'public' IPad for the duration of the meeting. Councilmembers could take turns giving up their IPad for those meeting...
jezra February 07, 2012 at 05:13 PM
if the documents being read are in an open data format, and publicly available for download on the city website, this is a trivial issue. Give the URL to those that want it, and print out a few dead tree versions for those that don't have computers.
George Barich February 07, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Good thought. Better, why not just use a Mac book or PC to project the document or Youtube video on the city video projector so all in the room who are paying the tab can follow along? Am I missing something here? Do we really want council members texting each other during a council meeting saying if you support me on this issue right now, I will endorse you this November? Do you really want a land developer texting a city official and promising a big campaign donation during the deliberation of an item? Could we see how an issue before the council heats up, the amount of money goes up on your screen? That might seem far fetched. The fact is such use of smart phones during council meetings is a slap in the face to the concept of open and public meeting laws. If you are not allowed to slide notes to one another under the table, you should not be allowed to do it through an ipad and never get caught to doing it.
David Keller February 07, 2012 at 05:46 PM
In California, the public has a legal right to know what information is being used by their elected representatives to review and decide on legislative, quasi-judicial (e.g., appeals) and project approval actions. Using iPads, laptops, cellphones and other personal devices makes it all too easy to violate the public's right to know. This isn't about a council member's access or ability to get digital information conveniently. All information used by a council member for making one of these important decisions must be public, subject to scrutiny, response or rebuttal in public. This protects the ability to have fair and open hearings on project considerations and approvals, appointments, resolutions, ordinances and other critical jobs that council members have sworn to do. The due process rights of project applicants, opponents, appellants and others doing business with the council are damaged without access to the full legal 'record' about their issues. Once the hearing is 'closed' to public testimony, no additional information can be slipped to one council member. These digital devices make it too easy for illegal, secret, serial meetings to occur between council members. It makes it too easy for lobbyists and others to secretly influence deliberations during the council meeting. It is rude for council members to be searching online while the public is talking to them. Just turn them off.
David Keller February 07, 2012 at 05:57 PM
The Brown Act states: "In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."
Olivia February 07, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Transparency, people—not iPads. . .
Go Occupy! February 07, 2012 at 09:50 PM
If using a private iPad during a public meeting is OK, I would like to officially announce the campaign of my iPad2 for city council. If my iPad wins, I'll (the owner) just sit at home while my iPad is placed on a stand at all meetings with my name in front of it...... i. Pad, ApprovedCouncildevice. I promise to always be honest and never allow outside influences to influence my decisions on influencing others. Deal? Also, the argument about losing an iPad as opposed to a briefcase at Acre and then being able to call in and scrub sensitive info once one realizes it is missing is pretty lame. What happens before that scrubbing, before the 20 year old hacker finds your misplaced iPad, downloads the contents of all the sensitive info, onto a youtube clip, plus all your Angry Birds stuff?
Ptown February 07, 2012 at 10:13 PM
Easy solution, disable wifi at the meetings and disable Internet capabilities on the iPads being used.
LongTimeLocal February 07, 2012 at 10:30 PM
Good idea but iPad's don't just use wi-fi - they also act as cell phones, and Apple is impossible to disable as it's a closed OS. Throw in the other pads like Android based and it gets even worse. Let them be used as long as completely shared with all present - but perhaps only the city there should have them and respond to publicly asked questions when a look up is needed.
Ptown February 07, 2012 at 10:54 PM
What about projecting each members I pad on the wall behind them?
George Barich February 07, 2012 at 10:56 PM
City leaders should turn off their phones, close their laptops and ipads and do their jobs. It's not that hard to read the material, do you're homework, and be prepared for the meetings. City officials can ask staff to bring up any website in advance to be used during the meeting for all to see. The council should consider taking phone calls during council meetings from the public during the period for public comment. But that would allow more people to participate in the process and we can't have that, can we? The technology is here, but that kind of technology they want no part of.
Go Occupy! February 07, 2012 at 11:26 PM
This iPad business must be a horrid idea, even the regular wackos that post here find it as such.
Gabe J February 08, 2012 at 03:40 AM
I didn't attend the council discussion and I don't know if anyone brought up the many examples of how other councils (including some in California) have dealt with this issue. Clearly, everyone bringing in whatever wireless device they want and using it whenever they want is not acceptable. The thing about technology is you have to manage it. Can it be managed? If so, how? And are there examples where it's working? This is a pretty simple policy document used in Dixon, where iPad use was apparently adopted: http://dixon-ca.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=281&meta_id=18378
George Barich February 10, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Just sent to me. Terry Francke February 09, 2012 Awareness Area: Government, Awareness Area: Politics, Legal Issue: Open Government Comments Off As screens and keyboards increasingly show up under the noses of officials conducting open meetings throughout the state, audience reactions range from resentment at the perceived discourtesy shown the public in attendance to downright distrust of members suspected of messaging one another to hold secret meetings in plain sight, or taking off-the record testimony or instructions from lobbyists or others in the audience or miles away. Recent reports by Lori Carter for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and Nick Gerda for the Voice of OC provide examples. Meanwhile in the small city of Dixon near Sacramento, a proposed sunshine ordinance about to be circulated as an initiative reacts to the recent purchase of iPads for members of the City Council by stating: (See below)
George Barich February 10, 2012 at 06:08 PM
"A member of a legislative body may, during a meeting governed by the Brown Act or this Chapter, use a digital communication device only if it has been provided by the City to assist members in their official work and linked to a display screen mounted behind the member in the meeting room, allowing citizens present to observe how the member is using his or her device and to read whatever messages are being sent or received by that member during the meeting. Information sent, received or stored on such devices is subject to the applicable records retention statute in the Government Code and to the disclosure requirements of the California Public Records Act and this Chapter."
Dan Lyke February 10, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Much is being made of the ability of these devices to access the network, but many of you seem to be asking for a level of transparency that you don't ask for from people's paper notes. A computer is a very handy way to sort, search and annotate documents in ways that paper can't touch. It seems like there's a middle ground here that's necessary to keep up with the way we're learning how to process information. It's hard to have a substantive meaningful discussion on complex issues unless you can sort and search through the hundreds of pages of documents that often support these decisions. And, there are a lot of covert ways to communicate to someone on the dais. Electronics aren't even necessary for most of them. I think there's some nuance here that needs to get explored more directly. I don't think we have the budget to buy tablets and displays for every council, committee and commission member who'd work better with the technology, and I suspect that a strict "no electronics" attitude will send a message that further disenfranchise many voters, causing them to roll their eyes and further cede politics to the newspaper generation.
Dan Lyke February 10, 2012 at 07:12 PM
George, do you have a link for this? I'll go digging further, but it sounds like we on the Tech Committee will be deep in the midst of this. Figuring out what Windsor and Dixon and other cities are doing is a part of that discussion.
Jason Davies February 10, 2012 at 10:40 PM
"But Councilman Mike Harris pointed out that if an iPad was offline, it would no longer populate iLegislate, an app council members with iPads use to read their council packets. Renee, too, disagreed with the idea, saying that not allowing online access curtailed members’ ability to research relevant data." This was confirmed to be factually incorrect. Councilmembers simply needed to download beforehand. It's even a touted feature: http://www.granicus.com/Solutions/Government-Transparency-Suite/iLegislate.aspx "iLegislate seamlessly connects agenda data to the iPad and makes it available for offline viewing. Elected members and staff can review agendas and supporting documents, take notes and bookmark items of interest. This mobile technology enables users to review meeting materials before, during or after a meeting from any location, even without an internet connection. All of your data is automatically backed up to the Granicus cloud once an internet connection is reestablished." Switching to Airplane mode during deliberations seems like a reasonable compromise that balances the needs/concerns of Councilmembers with those of their constituents. I look forward to further discussions at the next Technology Advisory Committee meeting and hope we can arrive at a policy recommendation that not only serves the current council and their constituents, but can continue doing so well into the future. Sincerely, Jason Davies Chair, Technology Advisory Committee
Karina Ioffee February 10, 2012 at 10:54 PM
Thanks for the clarification, Jason.
George Barich February 10, 2012 at 11:48 PM
To trust those in power with our tax dollars and our future to turn their electronic devices into the airplane mode creates problems many other cities have already addressed. I have personally been at a workshop where city staff and elected officials were seated at folding tables where you could easily view what was going on beneath the tables. At one meeting to pick a new chairperson for the Accordion Festival, notes were handed back and forth under the table as if we weren't watching. Until you have seen such a thing yourself, you wouldn't believe it can and does happens. The city council is shielded from view by the dias. After repeated requests that the late city councilman Bob Coleman close his Apple notebook and return to the open meeting in progress, he refused time and time again, until we had to walk up behind the dias, and take photos for ourselves. Even with direct evidence of skirting the open meeting laws, we cannot trust elected officials to play by the rules. The rules are simply there for their adversaries to be enforced against. Dixon is on the right track; project the i-pads on the wall, or govern as it has been done for over 200 years with paper of which copies are available to the public. Even after multiple requests for public documents allowed for by law, the public is often denied. Just try to find an attorney who will fight to protect these rights. Many admit they won't risk future "poor dealings" with the city as a result.
George Barich February 10, 2012 at 11:52 PM
Link to Calaware, of which I am a dues paying member. http://www.calaware.org/blog/some-jealous-wary-of-officials-use-of-e-tools-in-meetings/

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