Showdown brewing over proposed cellphone ban

November 16, 2013 10:22:16 PM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


STARKVILLE -- At least three Starkville officials have come out against a proposed board resolution that would ban public use of cellphones or smartphones, tablets and laptops during city meetings. 


The resolution is listed on Tuesday's consent agenda. Items on the consent agenda are available for passage without board discussion, but it is likely at least one alderman will push it to the regular agenda, opening the floor for serious discussions on the resolution's merit. 


If adopted, the ban would begin Dec. 3. 


Starkville publishes an advance copy of its Tuesday agendas on Fridays, and documents associated with this motion do not specifically state which alderman presented the item for board business. The motion's associated cover sheet simply lists "board of aldermen" as resolution's primary contact. 


Two officials --Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman and Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker -- told the Dispatch the proposal would stifle public discussions since it prevents members of the public from using social media to live tweet and opine during public discussions. 


"I don't mind having rules to maintain order in a meeting, but I am concerned the effect of this proposal would do more to suppress speech than maintain order," Wiseman said in a text message.  


"I didn't know anything about it until everything blew up, and I haven't spoken to anyone else up here about it," Walker added while in Seattle, Wash. 


Numerous city officials, including Walker, Wiseman, Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn, were in Washington on Friday for a municipal conference.  


"This will stifle free speech and reduce the public's ability to get information regardless of source," Walker said. "I think we have many issues that we need to address in Starkville before anything like this. It seems like a manufactured crisis. Also, I'm going to raise an issue because it says it's from the board. That's not true. Whoever put this in should say they did." 


Ward 4's alderman also took to Twitter Friday, posting "I do not support any reduction of free speech. #transparency" 


Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver also joined Walker's and Wiseman's opposition to the initiative Saturday. 


"I think we could ask people to silence them. If they blatantly disregard that, then take further action," he said via text message. "I think everyone means well." 


Carver's comments reference the city's current policy: members of the public are asked to silence their phones or other devices when they enter the room. The board has the authority to ask a disruptive person to leave its meetings. Representatives in Columbus and West Point both confirm their respective cities have no rules banning the use of smartphones -- they operate on a similar agreement currently used by Starkville. 


When asked if he would veto the matter if it is approved Tuesday, Wiseman said, "We will cross that bridge if and when we come to it." 


It is unknown how other aldermen will vote on the matter if the item is removed from consent. Calls to Ward 3 Alderman David Little, Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, Wynn, and Vaughn went unreturned.  


Although Carver opposes the measure, he will be out of state Tuesday and unavailable to vote if the resolution is called. If Walker toes the line, he would still need two other votes to force the matter to a tie, thereby opening the floor to Wiseman for a tie-breaking decision.  


If the resolution is passed and Wiseman vetoes the matter, five votes are needed to override his action.  


Wiseman has issued only one veto this term: he nixed the board's ousting of former Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill. The board then overrode his veto. 


As presented in the city's e-packet, the resolution claims to address increasing distractions caused by those who operate such devices by prohibiting them inside board meetings. If approved, citizens would be forced to pass through a metal detector before entering the courtroom. Those found in violation may be asked to leave the meeting. A Starkville Police Department representative will be stationed at the detector and enforce compliance there and during the meeting. 


Officials may continue using city-issued iPads to facilitate discussions, and the media may also continue using electronic devices to report board business, the resolution states. The exemptions, however, do not apply to "Internet bloggers or anyone engaged purely in social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc." 


The Dispatch attends each Starkville Board of Aldermen meeting and has not observed many, if any, such disruptions caused by individuals using smartphones or electronic devices since the new board took over July 1. Since that date, the Dispatch has observed minor breaks in protocol: arguments erupting between residents at the meeting and one public speaker who went over the allotted speaking time and walked to the board and criticized the mayor before being asked to leave. 


This term, the city began live streaming board meetings on its website. 


Residents took to social media outlets and began hammering the board for the proposal shortly after the Dispatch reported the matter. Many members of Starkville Thinks, a grassroots collective of residents aiming to shed light upon local governance issues through live tweeting board meetings and monthly, in-person discussions, said the motion is aimed at preventing them from critiquing public officials on Twitter during an open meeting. They will openly oppose the resolution Tuesday. 


"Imperative Starkville citizens attend Tues bd mtg (sic) at 5:30 and BRING YOUR SMARTPHONE and (hold) it in your hands so bd (sic) members can see," tweeted Lydia Quarles, a member of Starkville Thinks.  


"The very fact that a ban on tweeting BOA meetings could make the agenda is disturbing enough in itself, much less be motioned and passed," tweeted Ward 5 resident Jim Gafford on Friday. "I am impressed ... just when I think the Starkville BOA couldn't possibly out stupid themselves, they always find a way to set a new benchmark. Smartphones don't disrupt BOA meetings, dumb/inconsiderate people do. #fivestupids ride again." 


"Drawback of tweeting from the video stream is they don't have to look me in the eye when they attempt to destroy our city," he later tweeted at former Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, who regularly attends and live tweets city meetings. 


"I'm still stuck on the part of how it's disruptive. I think something being disruptive is something that calls attention to itself. I can't define exactly what a distraction is, but I know one when I see one. (Live tweeting) is not a distraction. That's why the mayor has the gavel," Sistrunk told the Dispatch Friday after the resolution became public. "Having sat on the other side of the board and seen far worse in distractions -- people talking, that sort of thing -- I don't see where this is a distraction. I've never been approached about it besides one official saying, 'You're killing us with your tweets.' 


"Live tweeting events, especially government meetings, is very common. Blogging is part of the world -- it's a cornerstone of democracy," added Starkville Thinks member Chris Gottbrath Friday. 


The Dispatch will continue to live tweet aldermen meetings from its @StarkDispatch account.

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch