m-bruncouncil-012309 Council weighs pros, cons of cell phones in meetings

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Tuesday discussed whether it should implement a rule prohibiting councilors from using cell phones and personal digital assistants during meetings.
The proposal was introduced by Councilor Margo Knight, who asked that colleagues consider changing council rules because the devices could be distracting to councilors and the public.
“It’s important that we give our undivided attention at hand when doing the public’s business,” Knight said.
Several councilors supported the proposal, but some expressed concern that shutting off phones and PDAs would prevent family members from contacting them in case of an emergency.
“I completely support the idea,” at-large Councilor Debbie Atwood said. “But I’m nervous about having it completely off, especially as a parent with children at home – a single parent with children at home.”
Some councilors suggested that the new rule be amended to allow councilors to ask permission from the chair to have the phones on silent or vibrate.
“Should I ask for permission before every meeting?” Atwood asked.
“Perhaps we could do a blanket order for the year,” Vice Chairman Benet Pols replied.
While Knight said her proposal was motivated mostly for maintaining a sense of decorum, she alluded to instances where councilors had received text messages from audience members and television viewers either asking to be called upon or giving councilors advice during debate.
The issue has come up elsewhere, including the state Legislature. In 2007, Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, proposed a rule in the House of Representatives banning lawmakers from receiving text messages and e-mails from lobbyists while in session.
Adams argued that lawmakers could be unduly influenced by lobbyists, who could feed the legislators talking points during debates.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 30 states have adopted similar policies. However, members of the Maine House, including recently appointed Attorney General Janet Mills, rejected Adams’ proposal. A second rule change was postponed indefinitely after former Rep. Stan Gerzofksy, now a Democratic state senator from Brunswick, moved to indefinitely postpone the ban.
Knight said she hoped other town committees and boards would consider the ban if it’s implemented by the council.
Pols, a former Planning Board member, said he could sympathize with Knight’s position. However, he pointed out that Blackberry users on the board were once able to use their devices to look up a statute they were debating.
“I wonder if we should be angling toward exceptions for the practical use of these machines,” Pols said.
Councilors took no action on Knight’s proposal and are expected to continue their discussion Feb. 2.
In other business, the council scheduled a Feb. 2 public hearing on a proposal to waive the $500 fee paid by the Brunswick Downtown Association to hold the Arts Festival in August.
Councilor Gerald Favreau, along with representatives from the BDA, said the fee hampered the BDA’s pursuit of marketing opportunities and other efforts to assist downtown businesses.
The current ordinance prevents the council from waiving the fee for non-profits. If changed, the council would also consider reimbursing the BDA the $500 fee it’s already paid to hold the Arts Festival.
The council will also hold a workshop Monday, Jan. 26, to discuss budget issues, the hiring of a new economic development director and its role with Brunswick Economic Development Corp.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net.