Jacksonville Ethics Director Carla Miller says “open government” is hard to nail down when new modes of communication pop up.
Several Jacksonville City Council members are facing a lawsuit over text messages with lobbyists during a meeting. The suit alleges they broke Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which require government business to be conducted in the open.
Miller says after the news broke, her first thought was, how can I train them better and more often, so they’re not running into these problems?
She says transparency laws haven’t kept up with technology.
“So you’re constantly trying to take laws that are maybe 20 or 30 years old and apply them to technology that might be one month old,” Miller says.
She says the same difficulty happened when email was introduced, but now those automatically back up.
Council members know they can’t text each other about business, but when lobbyists start texting them, things become murky, especially if they’re telling members how their peers will vote.
“Then it’s considered almost like the two Council people are communicating with each other directly, which is not allowed,” she says.
Miller says Council members get four hours of ethics training when they come into office. At the same time, they’re learning all procedures, so mistakes are bound to be made.
Lately, Council members have been looking into better ways to save their text messages. At a meeting earlier this month, Councilwoman Lori Boyer she said emails texts to herself that qualify as public business, but there’s a fear her phone will break and she’ll lose one’s she hasn’t emailed.
At the meeting, members met to look at database options for storing texts. But Miller says that’s too complicated. She says the simplest solution would be city-issued phones that automatically back up texts.
As for Council meetings, Miller says public feedback she’s received overwhelmingly favors an outright cellphone ban during meetings, and she supports it too.
“Take all of your stuff off of your desk and listen to what the other Council people are saying and listen to what the citizens are saying because we want you at that meeting,” she says.
But that isn’t what Council members have agreed to. President Greg Anderson tweaked the cell phone policy recently, so when lobbyists text during meetings, Council members can’t respond, and if it’s about business on the agenda, they have to disclose the text.
Miller says it’s a start, and she’s happy Anderson is starting a committee to review the issue. That way, the policy can evolve as technology does.