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Texting, tweeting during meetings frustrate council

WILLMAR -- For a brief time Monday, members of the Willmar City Council appeared to be entertaining the possibility of banning the public's cellphones from council meetings.

WILLMAR - For a brief time Monday, members of the Willmar City Council appeared to be entertaining the possibility of banning the public’s cellphones from council meetings.
The council didn’t take action on the suggestion, but members did make it clear that they find the public’s habit of texting and tweeting during meetings to be annoying.
In fact, the word “annoying” came up several times in the discussion, along with “intimidation” and “humiliation.”
The issue came up during a training session Monday afternoon with representatives of the League of Minnesota Cities. At a special meeting, LMC staff attorney James Monge discussed conduct at meetings and provided a refresher on the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.
Mayor Marv Calvin said he had invited the League to provide the training session at the request of the council’s Labor Relations Committee.
Monge discussed decorum at meetings - “the idea is we have certain rules we live by to help us go about our business harmoniously.”
Those rules should apply to everyone at a meeting, council, staff and the public, he said.
Some of the rules he suggested were to wait to be recognized before speaking and to refrain from using offensive words, threats or objectionable language. “That stuff isn’t persuasive; it just tends to make people solidify in their positions,” he said.
Other suggestions - refrain from private conversations, abide by time limits, listen and keep an open mind, turn off phones.
“Most people do turn off their cell phones, but now they’re texting during the meeting,” said council member Rick Fagerlie.
Council member Ron Christianson suggested that the mayor could tell everyone to shut off their phones and to stop texting during meetings. “It’s annoying,” he said. “It’s happened quite often in the last six months. … We’re trying to do city business; it’s annoying.”
Monge said there are First Amendment issues that could come into play. He and other League representatives suggested discussing the issue with the city attorney.
“Things have been contentious in Willmar, you know it, we know it,” Calvin said. “What I hear the council say is that’s disruptive to us conducting business.”
Monge said he understood that it could be annoying, but they needed to discuss it with the city attorney.
LMC staffer Doug Gronli said it would be very difficult to craft a ban that would withstand a challenge. And someone would probably challenge it, he added.
Political speech is “the most highly protected kind of speech,” said LMC staffer Jeanette Behr, and the council would have to abide by the same standard. “I totally understand the frustration,” she added. “You know, it is the world we live in.”
Christianson asked about the council’s First Amendment rights. “The most important job a council person has is to participate in discussion,” he said. “There’s public humiliation, public intimidation going on to keep eight members from speaking.”
He said he is tired of what he sees as attempts at intimidation and the effect it’s had on his personal life.
Council member Audrey Nelsen said she often gets questions about what council members are doing with their iPads during meetings. The need to be respectful with technology works both ways, she said.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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