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Electronic chatter among officials at public meetings in N.H. raises issues of transparency

ImageProxy.mvcBy Jonathan Van Fleet, managing editor for content at The Telegraph of Nashua, N.H.

NASHUA, N.H. – When officials in Nashua came up with an idea to equip the city’s elected leaders with electronic tablets at public meetings to save costs on paper copies of documents, it seemed like a decent idea.

Except for one thing — keeping track of their electronic communication during public meetings.

As our open government laws struggle to keep up in an electronic age, the idea that Nashua’s top elected leaders on the Board of Aldermen could be chatting with each other through their Gmail accounts brings up a huge question of accountability. It’s a dilemma that could present itself in virtually any city hall in the country and it’s a challenge for the newsrooms that cover them. 

At The Telegraph, New Hampshire’s second largest newspaper, we’ve already seen these elected officials work on their personal iPads and cell phones during meetings. And getting those records have been spotty, at best.In February, leading up to Sunshine Week, an annual examination of government transparency, we requested all electronic communication from these same elected officials during public meetings, including email, tweets, Google chats, text messages, and Facebook posts.

The 15 member board struggled to respond to the request. Several told us they kept no record of these types of communication, others said they couldn’t recall doing it.

The Board President Brian McCarthy, the same person who is proposing giving city-owned tablets to the board, said he frowns on the practice.

“This is reasonably simple. I have neither a twitter nor a facebook account. I do not read e-mails during meetings (with the exception that I will occasionally monitor my work e-mail for problems if I am only an attendee at a meeting),” McCarthy responded to The Telegraph’s Right-to-Know request. “I do not, as matter of practice, send texts or emails, generally ever, to other members of the board regarding matters that are before it.”

But that doesn’t mean other members aren’t doing it.

We received some text messages sent to one board member from another, who was watching the meeting at home on public access television. A story ran in the paper detailing what we found.

“Dude facebook is showing u liking when u r in an infrastructure meeting,” Alderman Diane Sheehan texted Alderman Jim Donchess during a Jan. 23 meeting.

There were other text messages from Sheehan to Donchess about the debate at the meeting as well.

The board’s most prolific social media man, Alderman Mark Cookson, who often will post to his Facebook page the time and location of a public meeting, offered some innocuous communication via Foursquare.

“Great Public Comments tonight! Thanks for coming out!” he said at the conclusion of a meeting on Feb. 12, at 11:15 p.m.

The board’s vice president offered the newspaper a different way to examine her electronic communication — she handed over her cell phone to a reporter, who examined and forwarded several messages for inspection.

The city’s attorney has warned Nashua’s elected officials about this kind of communication and how it runs afoul of state law.

“If the discussions of the public’s business at a meeting take place partially through the use of electronic devices, then those discussions have been closed to the public – violating the requirement that meetings be held in public,” City Attorney Stephen Bennett wrote to the board in March 2012.

With electronic devices in hand, will these elected officials obey the law or succumb to temptation?

Perhaps the biggest question on our minds, is if they do subvert an open meeting through electronic communication, what chance does the public have in getting the records when New Hampshire’s law has no teeth?

Our position has always been, if the elected officials are fuzzy on how to retain and furnish public records, then something is bound to be overlooked or lost. In turn, it limits the public’s access to government and the newspaper’s ability to do it’s job and hold elected officials accountable to the people.

As we said in a recent editorial about the proposal to give tablets to elected officials, “It’s nice to save a few bucks, and we applaud the initiative, but not if it is at the expense of people’s access to the actions of their government.”