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Campbell: In public meetings, talking is better than texting
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah government leaders should take a cue from lawmakers in Michigan. Some city councils in southeastern Michigan have decided to put away their smart phones, iPads and laptop computers at city council meetings, arguing that transparency and integrity of their business is harmed by electronic messaging, according to the Detroit News.

Supporters argue common courtesy and the state's open meetings law could be violated by texting, emailing and blogging during meetings. Others say the policies go too far. At least one member of the Sterling Heights, Mich., council said he is going to continue using his iPad to read the city council's meeting packet.

The move follows a successful challenge by an environmental group under Michigan's open records and meetings law. The challenge involved Ann Arbor City Council members who were discussing city business electronically during meetings. The case was settled and the city adopted rules that allowed only electronic communication between city council members and city staff.

An amendment to Utah's open meetings law during the last legislative session, HB54, allows messages between lawmakers when meetings are not being held. Such messages would then be subject to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). The bill's sponsor, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, said the legislation was intentionally silent on whether messages exchanged during a public meeting were off limits.

In Utah, some lawmakers have argued that text messages amount to "transitory conversations" much like a phone call and should not be considered a record under GRAMA. Perhaps they simply could remove the confusion by following the lead of other legislatures and stop texting altogether.

State transparency website earns a "C" • Despite all of the hoopla about Utah's financial transparency website, the Beehive State's site, http://www.utah.gov/transparency only got an average "C" grade in a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

According to the survey, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Missouri and Pennsylvania lead the nation in providing financial accountability with A or B grades. Open Door Kentucky, opendoor.ky.gov, was pointed out as an exemplary website. Along with state and local budget information, the site combines data on audits, state investments, tax incentives and election finance.

Utah received zero points for not having past government contracts on its site, not having information on tax expenditures, not having any information on quasi-public agencies and not having local-county spending posted. In fairness to Utah, there are links to the state auditor's office with financial documents from counties, districts and local governments. However, a check of several local government entities showed data is not completely transferred to the transparency site.­

Cities upgrade websites to earn A+ ratings • Utah cities and towns should follow the example of Lindon. When Lindon city leaders saw that its city had earned a "D" in a Sutherland Institute evaluation this past year about the online accessibility of city information, city workers redesigned the site's layout so important information would only be three clicks away.

The institute gave the A+ to Lindon and West Valley City for revamping their websites. The evaluation was based on how quickly someone could find a current budget, contracts, audits, tax information leadership contacts and administrative contacts. On the best Utah local government websites, researchers could find such basic information within 20 minutes.

Joel Campbell is an associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He can be reached at foiguy@gmail.com.

Transparency roundup • State earns a "C," but two cities get A+.
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