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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."

Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge, who got her new city-issued iPad last week, said the savings will cover the cost in less than a year. The seven iPads for the five council members and staff cost $5,670, including the monthly Internet service charge for a year.

"We're going to be saving thousands of dollars. There are so many benefits to using them," she said.

Suspicions about their misuse are generally misguided, she said.

"You need to work together with trust. We're professionals," she said of the county's elected officials. "You don't prevent a city from entering the 21st century for a lack of trust. It just shows a deeper dysfunction that needs to be dealt with."

In Texas, that distrust led a state legislator to propose a bill last year that would have made it a crime for public officials to text, email or send instant messages during meetings. In San Jose, City Council members are now required to disclose any texts or emails sent during meetings.

Gilroy went paperless in 2006 and banned outside communications via electronic devices except for emergencies in 2010. Just this month in Jersey City, N.J., a councilwoman said she wants to ban council members from using electronic devices during meetings so they can focus their full attention on the proceedings.

At a goal-setting conference last year, Kearney said, the Petaluma City Council agreed to allow the use of laptops or tablet computers to read electronic documents during meetings in an effort to save on printing costs.

He said he was accessing a password-protected app called iLegislate that allows elected officials access to council documents, agendas, staff reports and their own notes on those documents.

City Councilwoman Tiffany Renee has at times used her iPad during meetings to access large documents.

Elias cited the state's public records law in an email explaining his concerns:

"The Brown Act requires transparent communication that the public has a right to see and hear being made by and between elected and appointed officials during public hearings and meetings.

"Electronic devices including laptops, smartphones, iPads, etc. if allowed at the dais during public hearings and meetings introduces the potential for abuse and a hidden layer of communication that is kept from the public."

He acknowledged he "had no idea" what Kearney was viewing on his iPad and gave no indication that he believed it was improper.

"I only know neither the public nor the Planning Commission had access to what was being viewed and that is in general where the problem lies. That is where transparency, open government and the public trust is compromised," he wrote.

Kearney bristled at the idea he would violate the public's trust.

"Those who sit next to me can see what I'm looking at," he said. "It's not like I'm playing Angry Birds or updating Facebook or Twitter or reading emails."

Petaluma's City Council will discuss formalizing its policy during its meeting Monday.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.