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Pixels vs. paper in Petaluma: Are iPads in public meetings OK?

  • Petaluma City Councilman Gabe Kearney, who is the council's liaison to the city's planning commission, was perplexed when another commissioner objected to Kearney's use of his iPad to read a large environmental document during a recent meeting.

Petaluma City Councilman Gabe Kearney felt like he was doing the right thing — for efficiency and the environment — by using his iPad to read a large environmental document during a recent meeting.

But Kearney, who is the council liaison to the city's Planning Commission, was elbowed out of the discussion when another commissioner objected to the use of an electronic device during the hearing.

He was befuddled by the public calling out by Commissioner Dennis Elias, who didn't mention his concerns before the Jan. 10 meeting and apparently didn't accept Kearney's explanation that he wasn't receiving private communications on his iPad.

Elias said later that he was concerned about transparency, saying that the public should have access to the same documents as elected officials during a public proceeding.

"Everyone complains that we're not doing what we can to save money, and then when I try to do my part, I get complaints," Kearney said. "Using the iPad is a great example of using technology to help us save money."

But the issue can be more complicated.

Nationwide, the use of electronic devices by public officials has come under fire on several fronts, including whether officials are being influenced by unseen lobbying forces, whether their full attention is focused on the public's business and whether their communications — even on their personal devices — are public records.

Public agencies in Sonoma County have widely varying policies, from nothing at all to an all-iPad Windsor Town Council and county Board of Supervisors.

Rohnert Park officials are asked to refrain from sending or receiving external communications during meetings, but are permitted to use laptops to access electronic documents.

Santa Rosa's council policy states that members "shall not send, receive or read electronic messages of any kind during a council meeting."


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