Two resolutions, 300-15 and 342-15, have placed restrictions on use of smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other electronic devices during Mayor & Council meetings. The resolutions amended the borough’s by-laws under Article II – Section 6.
The restrictions were a result of the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities (NJLM) convention in November that addressed issues with transparency and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) as well as the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The new by-law section reads:
The Council’s and all Borough Officials’ use of electronic communication devices, including but not limited to cell phones, computers, tablets and smart phones, during a Mayor and Council meeting may lead to the public’s perception that a Councilmember and Borough Official is [sic] not paying attention to the subject matter at hand or that a Councilmember or Borough Official is receiving information relative to the subject matter at hand that other Councilmembers or Borough Officials and members of the public are not receiving, either one of which is inimical to good government and transparency. Therefore, the Council’s or Borough Officials’ use of electronic communication devices (including but not limited to cell phones, computers, tablets and smart phones), other than for the purpose of accessing agenda matters that are on a Councilmember’s or Borough Officials’ I-pad [sic] or lap top [sic] computer, is prohibited during Mayor and Council meetings.
The original resolution was limited to only elected officials but Third Ward Councilman Ryan Kelly asked at the December 17th meeting that all borough officials – such as the Borough Clerk, Borough Attorney, Engineer – be included.
There was some discussion regarding the prohibition since, as shown in the past, access to such information that can easily be accessed via the internet would be of benefit to any discussion, be it from the public during the public comment portion or from the dais. One example that demonstrated this some years ago occurred when a member of the public asked a question during the public comment portion of a meeting. Third Ward Councilwoman Tanya Torres openly and explicitly used her smartphone to text the individual in charge of the the department being discussed and the resident received their answer before they left the microphone. Currently, that person would have had to wait until after the meeting or the next meeting to receive an answer; which might be too late.
On the other end of the argument, there could be the perception that a member of council might be sending a message on how to vote or text a comment that could affect a vote or motion. Plus, it is just plain rude when a member of the public is speaking and those on the dais are looking at their phones or are not looking at the individual speaking; although this has been done numerous times with councilmembers signing checks or reviewing other documents or either leaning over and talking amongst each other while some members of the public are commenting.
The new prohibition will take effect immediately although there was no explicit mention made of what, if any, penalty or fine or action will be taken against anyone on the dais if they do not abide. Also, the restriction is not placed on members of the public or those in the audience.