La Mesa council rejects cell-phone ban

"Mini computer" use to continue while members sit on dais

La Mesa mayor Art Madrid's city-council colleagues rejected his April 8 request to prohibit cell-phone use by councilmembers during forums, including meetings, town halls, and closed sessions.

Madrid's proposal for city attorney Glenn Sabine to draft cell-phone policy died after discussion that included vice mayor Kristine Alessio and councilman Ernie Ewin speaking about the "non-intrusive" reading of texts during meetings. Furthermore, one resident asked Sabine about public access to that communication, and another resident said a former councilmember texted her from the dais.

In a letter in the council agenda, Madrid wrote, "The use of cell phones for texting or making calls while doing the City's business is a sign of disrespect for audience members and staff. More importantly, we can’t have two standards; currently we require members of the audience to silence their phone or leave the Chambers if they want to make or receive calls."

Madrid said other cities in San Diego County and the state banned cell-phone use during meetings. Although the mayor didn't name municipalities, the Encinitas City Council in 2012 voted to prohibit texting and the use of electronic devices during meetings.

In La Mesa, councilmembers said they silenced their phones and didn't take calls.

Ewin held up his iPhone, saying he had read a La Mesa Police Department update that was sent through Nixle, an online and mobile messaging system. The councilman said he goes to the calendar when an event is announced.

He also described some personal messages. Ewin said that when his wife travels, "it gives me comfort to look down" and read her text. In addition, he received a text notification during a meeting about a relative's death.

Alessio said her phone "is a little mini-computer" that she uses to take notes. She said she didn't text anyone on the council, but "I've texted my daughter when she was home alone…. It gives me peace of mind. I want everyone in the audience to be able to do that."

While councilwoman Ruth Sterling didn't comment on the matter, councilman Mark Arapostathis said he wanted the public to know that the computers on the dais were "one-way, with an online agenda and no internet or email capability. It would be nice to be able to check the internet" about a topic like the details of an assembly bill.

Two residents also commented. Patrick Dean asked Sabine about Freedom of Information Act access to cell-phone communication.

Sabine referred to a March state appellate-court decision. The court in Smith v. City of San Jose ruled that messages by elected officials and government workers written on "private" electronic devices were exempt from disclosure laws.

The city attorney said councilmembers described personal communication. He said if communication involved city business, it would be disclosable under the Brown Act, the open-meeting law.

Resident Kristin Kjaero said, "During council meetings, I have received text messages from a councilmember. Nobody that's up here now, but you need to be aware of that and police yourselves."

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