November 20, 2013 10:03:48 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- A significant clash between the public and aldermen was avoided Tuesday when the board passed a compromise from Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard that ensures residents may bring cellphones to public meetings if they pledge to avoid distractions.
Instead of banning cellphones from meetings, the Starkville Board of Aldermen codified a previous working agreement between the city and public. Maynard's resolution calls for residents to silence or power down cellphones during meetings, and directs Mayor Parker Wiseman to make a public reminder of the policy at the start of each gathering. Those who violate the policy could be asked to leave.
The compromise, which passed unanimously, came after Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins motioned his own set of rules that would have only allowed media, journalism students and designees from the city's police and fire departments to possess cellular devices during board meetings. Perkins' attempt was a subdued version of a previous motion that would have banned electronic devices -- smartphones or cellphones, tablets and laptops.
"I think (the compromise) would accomplish what we're trying to accomplish here: maintaining order and decorum in board meetings, and not having board meetings interrupted. I believe that announcement at the beginning of the meetings would suit everybody's needs," Maynard said before the board approved his motion.
Perkins' amended motion was defeated earlier in the night by a 4-3 margin, gaining support from only Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn.
His proposal cited cellphones as a growing disturbance to board business, a claim reiterated by Wynn, who said she and Ward 3 Alderman David Little both discussed an incident stemming from the city's previous meeting. Before the first vote, Wynn asked aldermen to raise their hands if they have observed cellphones ringing in meetings. All but Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker confirmed her question.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, who previously told The Dispatch he did not support the new rules but would be out of town for the meeting, cut an out-of-state trip short to cast his vote Tuesday. He said the board should try a softer approach to curb disturbances.
"I think that people do mean well. I think if you ask people to keep cellphones on silent like you do at movies, church or anywhere else, I think people will keep their phones on silent," he said. "At this time, I cannot support this."
"I tend to agree with Alderman Carver... with a softer approach," added Little. "I have only been here a few months, and it hasn't been that huge of an issue. The last meeting, I don't know if it's knee-jerk to just jump out there and go so far."
Tuesday's meeting was filled with numerous residents who previously told The Dispatch they would speak out against the board for the proposed ban. Instead of chastising aldermen before their vote, some thanked the board for taking a common sense approach since the matter was moved ahead of public comments at the start of the meeting.
"Thank y'all for listening to citizens over the past few days about their concerns about cellphones and electronic devices, for modifying your stance and for taking a very reasonable approach to solving a problem," former Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk told the board. "I think we'll all be more than happy to comply with making sure our phones are on silent."
David Garraway, a Ward 3 resident, urged the board and residents to use common sense in future legislative matters while thanking aldermen for a "step in the right direction."
"I want to make sure this board understands that many of you were elected on the concept of small government, that the idea is we need to get people as much freedoms as possible. I think it's pretty apparent now that you cannot legislate common sense. Common sense says you silence a phone when you walk into a meeting, but if people don't have common sense, then it's very difficult to legislate that," he said. "I wonder why it requires an ordinance now to ask the mayor to say 'Please silence your cellphones.' Maybe any of you could have said that in the past when a cellphone went off.
"Creating excessive legislation is not the solution to problems; instead, let's work together," he added.
After the board settled the matter, a resident was ejected from the meeting after allowing her cellphone to repeatedly ring. Starkville Police Chief David Lindley said the individual was the same one whose phone disrupted the previous board meeting.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch