Courtenay council embroiled in ‘texting’ controversy

Dec 9, 2016

It’s not a scandal on the scale of Anthony Weiner “sexting” photos of himself.

But the issue of “texting” has raised a bit of a scuffle at Courtenay council:

Should elected officials be sending, or receiving and reading, texts from their cell phones while sitting at the council table?

Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula thinks not.

Read the original article on the Comox Valley Echo.

But many of his councillors think that, hey, this is the digital age. Why not?

The matter arose after at least one letter to city hall was received accusing a member of the audience of texting messages to members of council during a heated debate Nov. 7 on the tree protection bylaw.

“At that meeting a number of the attendees were shocked to observe what we believe were texting communications being exchanged between a member of the audience and one or two of the councillors. The activity took place during the meeting … but after open dialogue between the floor and council had been closed,” said the letter writer.

The writer’s identity was blocked out on the letter because he or she did not give permission to have it made public on the city’s official records or website.

This writer also noted that the incident was reported to the Governance and Structure Department of the Ministry in Victoria, as well as the Office of the B.C. Ombudsperson.

The B.C. Ombudsperson apparently referred the matter back to the City to handle.

The Comox Valley Echo also received a letter about the texting from a person who included their name.

Irene Murray, of Courtenay, accused a former city councillor of “a flurry of typing” on her phone during the meeting.

“On at least three occasions, immediately following a flurry … two councillors, who had said they had nothing further to add to the dialogue, suddenly raised questions and points of order,” she said.

“What was she telling the councillors she wished to influence and what influence did she in fact have on those councillors, their deliberations and their voting decision?

“More importantly, how long has this type of political interference and tampering at City Hall been going on and what effect has it had on their decisions? What impact on our community and taxpayers?” she asked.

“We elected one mayor and six councillors. There is no room for a self-appointed 7th councillor at the Courtenay Council chambers”.

Texting a councillor at a meeting isn’t illegal, though, according to legal advice obtained by the city.

“There is no legal ground for preventing a member of the public from texting or emailing a Council member (or vice versa) during a Council meeting,” advised Don Lidstone, Q.C., of Lidstone & Company, Vancouver.

“Nothing in the legislation, case law or City Coucil meeting procedure bylaw would prohibit such conduct, Indeed, it is my view that a prohibition might be construed as an unlawful constraint on freedom of expression, contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Traditionally, members of a gallery could pass notes to elected officials (whether in Paliament, the Legislature or Council Chambers). The difference with texting or emailing is it is digital and electronic rather than on a piece of paper,” Lidstone advised.

But Mayor Jangula said Monday night the matter wasn’t likely to go away, and suggested the legal advice was “questionable.”

“I think it really compromises the integrity of council,” he said of the allegations.

And the allegations are just that, said Counc. Doug Hillian.

He wanted to know how the letter writer could possibly know who, if anybody, on council the audience member was texting. There is no evidence, he said.

“We have an allegation, unproven, unsubstantiated. I honestly don’t know why this is a problem,” he said.

Hillian said the city could leave itself open to a charter challenge, as suggested by the lawyer.

And he asked rhetorically “should we not indulge in eye contact … or try to read body language” when dealing with delegations and audience members.

Hillian noted that a legal public hearing, on a rezoning application for instance, is a different matter, and that council cannot receive input after a hearing is held before making a final decision.

Counc. Bob Wells said the matter appeared to be one of professionalism.

“The challenge is reality vs. perception,” he added.

“They can’t actually see what I’m doing” on an electronic device, Wells said, adding that the regional district hands out iPads to all its board directors to use at meetings.

“It’s a question of self-control … generally here we’re pretty professional about things.”

Counc. Erik Eriksson suggested that “if you’re paying attention to your phone … it’s disrespectful” during meetings.

Counc. Rebecca Lennox said she would probably be annoyed as a delegation to council if councillors’ heads were down looking at their phones. She suggested that as long as council members were “conscientious”, she didn’t see a problem.

Counc. David Frisch said he was “sorry someone in the audience thought something ominous was going on.”

But he, too, didn’t see a problem, noting that “you can’t concentrate on two things at once” and if someone texted him during a meeting he’d pay no attention.

Mayor Jangula, though, said “I think we should be squeaky clean” when it comes to dealing with the public and making decisions.

“If you feel it’s not a problem … fine,” he finished.

Counc. Manno Theos had suggested councillors should just leave their phones in their mailboxes before going into the council chambers. He said the place where he works prohibits cellphone use during working hours, and that his daughter isn’t allowed to use one in the classroom.

But there were no takers for a policy on that.

Debra Martin

Writer, Comox Valley Echo