Texting banned at Rotterdam sessions
ROTTERDAM U btr nt b txt msg'ing @ Rotterdam Town Board meetngs ne more.
Sending such messages will no longer be tolerated during the board's regular business sessions, according to Wednesday's draft agenda. Wireless devices, such as cellphones or BlackBerry smart phones, should be turned off at meetings and texting will be prohibited, the agenda states.
The directive to end text messaging during board meetings came abruptly from Supervisor Frank Del Gallo's office without any consultation or vote from the full board. It was unclear Monday whether the new policy is aimed at members of the public, the Town Board or both.
At least one resident regularly types a loose transcript of the board meetings on a BlackBerry. This transcript seems to appear on the Web-based community forum RotterdamNY.info, and is usually visible within minutes after meetings are adjourned.
Del Gallo did not return calls to his office or cellphone Monday. Deputy Supervisor Robert Godlewski also did not return calls.
Board member Nicola DiLeva, who owns a BlackBerry, was incensed by the apparent decree and questioned what authority Del Gallo had to make such a policy. She said the new regulation was put forward by either Del Gallo or Godlewski and done without any input from the board.
"This is just ridiculous," she said. "There is so much more we need to do for Rotterdam. There are so many more issues on the table. Why are we even bothering with this?"
The new regulation also appears in violation of New York's open meetings law. Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said case law specifically protects the right to record or videotape public meetings, provided this action doesn't cause a disturbance.
"The courts say a board cannot prohibit the use of a recording device unless it's obstructive or obtrusive," he said. "I don't see this is distinguishable from that, so long as the device is not disruptive."
Further, Freeman said, some interpretations of the law suggest the town could be in violation of the First Amendment, especially if the aim of the policy is to restrict residents from posting unabridged notes from the meetings publicly. He said prohibiting someone from typing on a BlackBerry could be loosely equated with restricting someone from using a pen and paper to jot down notes.
The new policy is also being rebuked by a number of residents discussing the matter online. Kevin March, a resident who frequents Town Board meetings, doesn't mind turning off his BlackBerry's ringer or setting it to vibrate, but he refused to be "singled out" for using the device during a public forum.
"If anyone would like me to text to them what is happening at the meeting, please feel free to send me your phone number to text to," he posted on RotterdamNY.info.
Frank Salamone, a member of the town's Republican Committee who frequently challenges the transparency of the Del Gallo administration, also knocked the move to stop text messaging at board meetings. While acknowledging the need to silence cellphone conversations and ringers, he sees no need to prohibit text messaging.
"There is no reason to prohibit audience members from sending text messages," he said. "This is a convenient way for those in the audience to provide instantaneous information to those unable to attend meetings."
Todd Koza, another resident who frequents the meetings with his BlackBerry, wondered if he would have to surrender the device before attending. He wondered why the town administration feels the need to encroach on what he's doing during the meeting, when it's not creating a distraction.
"It's about personal freedom for me," he said. "I'll be prepared with various other means to document the meeting."
Ordering an end to text messaging is the latest in a string of open-government issues involving the Del Gallo administration over the past year. These include failing to give a fellow Town Board member a list of town employees requested via the state's Freedom of Information Law; conducting an executive session to discuss centralized dispatching with the town's police union in apparent violation of the state's open meetings law; calling for a vote on a resolution to provide early retirement packages to select town employees without alerting board members more than two days in advance; and withholding from the media for nearly a month a settlement agreement with the former assessor.