The answer: “Anyone with the council member’s phone number.”
The question: “Who may conduct private conversations with Huntington City Council members during open public meetings, trying to influence the outcome of votes through methods others cannot access?”
It’s a question that opens itself up to another: “In an open meeting, are some conversations private?”
The correct and obvious answer is, “Of course not.”
Recent events have brought these questions to the public’s attention. As detailed in an article by The Herald-Dispatch reporter McKenna Horsley in Sunday’s edition, some council members conducted private text conversations with outsiders and each other during a series of votes last month to select a replacement for a member who had resigned. People at the meeting or watching it online had no idea what council members were saying to each other or to outsiders — in this case, including a resident of another state — who were trying to influence the outcome while the meeting was going on.
The result was two meetings occurring simultaneously. One was the open, public meeting. The other was one with discussion held in secret. That may not be a violation of the letter of the West Virginia open meetings law, which was written before texting was common, but it certainly violates the spirit of the law.
Meetings of the City Council and other public bodies are supposed to be open to the public. Thus, conversations during those meetings must be open and public. A record is kept of discussions and votes. To be a truly open meeting, the public must be able to listen to conversations going on during those meetings, but that’s not possible if council members are talking to each other or to other people through text messages or online conversations.
At a special council meeting on July 22, people not on the council had access to council members they would not have had if the meeting were conducted under circumstances that existed when the open meetings law was written. Thanks to technology, these people had access to public officials during a vote — access the public lacked unless they, too, had the council members’ phone numbers. In one case, a council member said, conversations were erased, so we don’t have a written record of what was said.
There’s nothing wrong with interested parties contacting public officials outside of official meetings. That’s what the public should do. But when the meeting starts, things change. Everyone has equal access, and records are kept. As the events of July 22 showed, that’s not what happened that day.
The time when any government body enters into a meeting to conduct official business is not the time for private conversations. It’s not the time for conversations that are not part of the official record.
Regarding access to council members during an official meeting, Huntington City Council rules allow for limited windows of comment from the public during a meeting. The rules do not allow a person to walk up to a council member during a meeting to try to influence a member to vote a certain way. Police would escort that person from the meeting room and probably from City Hall. So why should a person who has the council member’s phone number or is connected via an app have that privilege? Who gets to influence council members during a meeting or during a vote, whether for innocent reasons or nefarious ones?
City Council Chairman Mike Shockley has introduced an ordinance that would bar council members from using electronic communication devices during meetings. His ordinance was tabled for six months Aug. 9 to allow for an overall review of the Rules of Council.
“All I am trying to do is to protect the integrity of open meetings and did not want outside influence for votes,” Shockley said.
During an Administration and Finance Committee meeting Aug. 9, Councilwoman Tia Rumbaugh echoed Shockley’s concerns.
“In addition, there is a chance for certain members, like myself, a young member, a new member of City Council who might not be aware of all the ethical and moral obligations of our position to be influenced by external factors, such as texts and phone calls from political parties and individuals who want to influence votes, which is peculiar, but I guess that’s what politics is all about,” she said.
Both Shockley and Rumbaugh make excellent points as to the need for council members to put their phones away during meetings.
At their next meeting, council members should either bring Shockley’s proposed rule change off the table and act on it, or else they should explain to the public why they shouldn’t. Tell voters why some people, even those in other states, should have access to council members during meetings but others should not.
And it should be made clear that any texts generated during that meeting or any other must be preserved and made part of the official record to be kept in the city clerk’s office, the same as meeting minutes and any recordings of official meetings are.
There’s something else to address here. While we are not aware of this happening in Huntington, elsewhere elected officials have been known to post comments on Facebook or Twitter during official meetings. This, too, should be prohibited, given the nature of public comment on those forums and similar ones.
The growth of electronic communications has changed the way people interact with public officials. Meeting rules and state law must be revised to address that fact.
This isn’t just for the City of Huntington, of course. Public business of all public bodies, from zoning boards to school boards to the Legislature itself, must be conducted in public and with a record of what is said and done. It’s that simple.