EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 23, 2013

Can't make a board meeting? Text from home

NH has no laws governing texting into public record

By Alex Lippa

---- — Londonderry Planning Board Chairman Mary Wing-Soares didn’t go to a Town Council meeting last month, but her comments were entered into the public record just the same.

Soares texted her remarks to Town Council John Farrell who read them and entered them into the public record and meeting minutes that night.

There’s nothing illegal about what happened in Londonderry, but at least one citizen has raised concerns that texting comments is disruptive and inappropriate.

It’s an issue more local boards are likely to deal with as technology makes being somewhere almost inconsequential to participation.

There is no state law that covers text messages during public meetings, according to New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.

“The law permits outside participation by electronic means for a public body,” Scanlan said, “as long as participants can hear what is going on at meeting and the public in attendance can hear what the communication says.”

For now, all decisions on text messages will be made by the individual boards, he said.

“With the advances in technology, these questions are going to keep arising,” Scanlan said. “I’m sure if they become a problem, the Legislature will deal with them.”

But Londonderry resident Dana Coons was upset and wrote a letter to councilors expressing his concerns about the meeting Dec. 17.

His letter was read aloud at the Town Council meeting last week.

Farrell acknowledged Soares’s texts may have been unusual, but certainly not illegal.

“We do want people to participate, in any way shape or form,” Farrell said at the meeting Jan. 14. “This council wants full transparency and we’ll take it however we can get it.”

Londonderry acting Town Manager William Hart didn’t want to weigh in on the issue.

“It is up to the boards to determine how they want to run their meetings,” he said.

With local cable channels often broadcasting meetings live, it’s easy for residents to watch a meeting from the comfort of home and now, it appears, participate from there as well.

Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey said texting during public meetings hasn’t been a problem to date in Salem, but he can envision it happening.

“It’s nice to have the entire board hear the comments in front of them,” he said, “and you would then kind of tend to hear some of the context of the comments.”

A problem some foresee could be verifying the identity of the person sending the text messages.

“That is a risk the member is running,” Atkinson town attorney Sumner Kalman said. “If comments are coming in and they are being shared, the person reading the comments has to be satisfied with what they are sharing.”

But Londonderry town attorney Michael Ramsdell said that risk is already being taken.

“People will send a letter to Town Council to have read into the record, and the board will take that and put it out there into the public domain,” he said. “If someone sends a letter, you don’t necessarily know who it is from.”

Atkinson Town Administrator Bill Innes said town officials there shut their phones off during public meetings. But, he added, he would be open to receiving comments via text messages to increase participation in municipal meetings.

“We don’t get a lot of attendance at the meetings, but it would be nice if there was a way for residents to ask a question,” Innes said. “I’m all in favor of increasing communications.”

Innes proposed a method where one member of the board could look at a screen with text messages and use his own judgment in deciding whether to bring it into the meeting.

“It would have to be a controlled process,” Innes said. “They could answer questions if they chose to. Once the conversation is closed, there would be no further comments.”

Salem Selectman Stephen Campbell said he turns his phone off during meetings and believes a selectman looking at a phone during a meeting would not be beneficial.

“If someone is constantly receiving messages during a meeting, you could have a perception that that person couldn’t think for themselves,” Campbell said. “If someone is busy reading an email or text, I don’t think my attention is on the person that is currently speaking.”

Ramsdell, the Londonderry town attorney, acknowledges texting could spiral out of control. He said he believes the boards may eventually have to take action.

“I think there is no question,” Ramsdell said. “If people were going to keep sending text messages, then the town would have to address it. It would become too burdensome.”