By Patrick Lyons
Lansing Star staff writer
On Aug. 1 The Lansing School Board Policy Committee will discuss prohibiting cell phone use among board members during meetings.
This type of policy discussion has already been addressed by other public bodies in Michigan. The Detroit News reported on July 6,
that public bodies in Ann Arbor, Sterling Heights and Royal Oak have eliminated the use of cell phones and laptops by board members during open meetings. These decisions were made in an attempt to support the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
The Michigan Open Meetings Act requires that meetings of public bodies be open to the public with only a few exceptions. Section 3 sub section 3 of the statute says that “All deliberations of public body … shall take place at a meeting open to the public … ”
This includes all discussions among board members during open meetings, meaning means that any communication among board members that the public cannot see or hear would violate the act. Text messages, emails and phone calls could all be considered violations.
The issue was brought to the board’s attention during the Board of Education Policy Committee meeting on July 11 by Secretary Myra Ford. She said that she would be bringing forth language for a new or amended by-law to address the issue of technology use at board meetings at the Aug. 1 policy meeting.
“That has become a popular topic,” Tom Quasarano, Assistant Attorney General and adjunct professor of media law at Michigan State University, said. “It is not uncommon to have laptops, emailing going on between members during a board meeting. So any communications that are done electronically where someone cannot have access to a keyboard to see what the … board members are saying to each other could be problematic.”
Note that the comments made by Quasarano are his alone and are not the opinions of the Michigan Attorney General.
Ford said that it is not uncommon to see some Lansing School Board members take phone calls or send and receive texts during board meetings.
These actions could be perceived by the public as a violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act which would lead to problems for the district, Board President Shirley Rodgers said.
“We would have to spend resources defending it, and that is just unnecessary, we [board members] should not be the cause of these kinds of actions,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers expects the new policy to pass with little opposition. She said it was obvious that the board needed to be proactive on this issue.
“There may be some who object but I think that the majority of the board will think that [the new policy] is the appropriate action to take,” Rodgers said.
Board members who object to the new policy will have little if any legal backing against the policy, according to Quasarano.
“Any prohibition … that essentially supports the Open Meetings Act is probably going to stand up to any test against it,” Quasarano said.
Both Ford and Rodgers agree that not only is cell phone use a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act, it is also rude.
“It’s always bothered me that board members … do not seem to have their attention focused on the people who are there to speak to them,” Ford said. “The fact that you are getting calls during a meeting indicates that your focus is not where it needs to be.”
Rodgers said that the cell phone use by board member could also be viewed in a hypocritical light by the public.
“We have a policy about cell phone use in our schools and I think that the board ought to model the behavior that they expect of the students, that is logical to me,” Rodgers said.
The Lansing School Board Policy Committee Meeting will take place on Aug. 1 at 5:30 p.m. in the Board Room of the Administration Building, 519 W. Kalamazoo St.