San Francisco Open government in the heart of Silicon Valley is starting to mean turn off, tune out, power down.
When the San Jose City Council meets just miles from the Apple and Google campuses, its members shut down all portable electronic devices, as though they were in a theater. If they’re on and they get a text or e-mail from a lobbyist or anyone discussing city business, they must say so right then and there.
Experts say San Jose’s policy is a model for open government in the digital age. Other cities and state legislatures are adopting their own rules at a time when officials are increasingly fielding requests for lawmakers’ cell phone records, e-mails and text messages.
“Essentially what we’ve said is a public record is a public record,” San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said, “no matter where it exists.”
More than half of the legislative chambers in the states restrict the use of electronic devices in some form, including dozens that prohibit the use of cell phones on the floor, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
In California, the new Assembly Speaker, John Perez, D-Los Angeles, is trying to impose a ban on texting from lobbyists to lawmakers on the floor or in committee. The state Senate already requests that its members not use personal cell phones and electronic devices during meetings.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom says he is considering banning texting and e-mailing between lobbyists and lawmakers during City Hall meetings.
But advocates for open and accountable government say that banning texting or e-mailing during meetings leaves huge loopholes since lobbyists and lawmakers could text or e-mail each other just before or after a meeting.
The better policy, they say, is one like San Jose’s, which requires officials to disclose all discussions of public business, including those conducted on personal cell phones or laptops.
“A ban is better than nothing but not much,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael, Calif.-based non-profit that advocates for open and accountable government.
“It’s more a cosmetic political gesture aimed at avoiding embarrassment since so many public officials are actually receiving messages during a hearing or a voting session that tells them how to vote,” Scheer said. “Disclosure is the better idea.”