Twitter and the Open Public Meetings Act

It must have been a slow news week for West-side news reporters covering city council meetings in the Seattle area.  The talk of the town was Jennifer Gregerson, a city council member for Mukilteo who posted on Twitter the following message:

City staff and some council now Debriefing and relaxing at ivars for late night happy hour. Time for dinner, I think!

The council member posted this message on the way to Ivar’s restaurant, and it raised eye brows because it turned out that a total of four council members showed up and thus the informal group constituted a quorum of the council. The Open Public Meetings Act makes it illegal to discuss business unless a meeting of a quorum is open to the public.   When I read the councilwoman’s Twitter post, it was pretty clear to me that no official business was discussed, and that going to a to a “late night happy hour” for “debriefing” was a euphemism for getting a little drunk with friends.  But this ambiguous term “debriefing” led the Snohomish County HeraldNet to lead with the headline: “’Tweets’ bring possibly illegal meeting to light.”  Huh?  Don’t people realize that city council members might enjoy talking about something else besides council business?  It turned out another council member, Kevin Stolz saw the get together, and rather than join the group, he called the media.   An Assistant Attorney General who was consulted for the story explained that it is not illegal for public officials to get together as long as they do not discuss official business.  A city lawyer was present at Ivars that evening and confirmed that no business was discussed.  The council member who complained also commented: “And the Twitter thing? That just should not have happened.”   But why would it be wrong for a council member to post on Twitter what is going on with city business?    It turned out Councilwoman Gregerson posted 28 updates on Twitter during the meeting earlier that evening.   Twitter is a transparent medium and any member of the public can follow what is going on with their government.   Contrast this with private emails that might be circulated among council members.   Even the HerlandNet (in a follow-up article) stated: “We applaud Gregerson for ‘tweeting’ from the hearing — it’s a step forward in government transparency when an official shares her thoughts and observations with the public in real time.”

For those not familiar with Twitter, it is a “micro-blogging” service that allows users to posts short updates of about 30 words at a time.   Twitter is a medium that has a reputation for being somewhat trivial, and it is true that some celebrities use it to post the most inane details of their lives.   But Twitter has the capability to transform government.   It is through Twitter and other social media that the world has had a steady stream of information on the Iranian election protests after all the journalists had been deported or jailed.  See “Twitter Tells Tale of Iranian Election“.   Here at home, wouldn’t Twitter posts during a meeting alert the public when a certain topic came up on the agenda?   How many times have you sat through a meeting for hours waiting for a certain subject to come up?  The meeting that was occurring on the night in question in Mukilteo was not even a city council meeting, it was a meeting of the Boundary Review Board.  Zzzzzzzzzz………  Who would want to sit through three hours of that?  Do we really think the council members would want to talk about that meeting in their spare time?

Despite the HeraldNet’s headline about “possibly illegal meetings,” the online readers seemed to recognize that the matter was largely blown out of proportion.   Many readers commented that it was a tempest in a teapot.   It is apparent that Councilman Kevin Stolz had an ax to grind, and was using the media to go after his rivals on the city council.

6 Responses to “Twitter and the Open Public Meetings Act”

  • Priestess:

    Yeah, posting info on the net about a city council meeting scores points for transparency, but twittering on blackberry during a public hearing makes me thing that this lady wasn’t paying attention.

  • Jennifer Gregerson:

    Thanks for your coverage of it– I generally agree. I’ll be more careful to be clear when I tweet. For what it’s worth, these particular messages weren’t sent during our meeting- and they actually keep me engaged– always thinking about how to re-communicate what I’m hearing, what’s interesting to the public, etc.
    I have sent messages during our council meetings. I’m probably going to continue doing that for the transparency it brings. I don’t feel distracted; I multitask constantly. At council meetings, we often have presentations from staff, along with new materials to read, along with council discussions– a good councilmember has to be able to synthesize a lot of information simultaneously. Twitter is just one more piece of the pie for me.

  • Thanks for the info Jen. I think one of the things that fueled this story is that journalists seem to be really interested in how new media is used in government. Your use of this medium to keep people informed is cutting edge, and i will look to see this technique replicated by other council members.

  • I work for a public agency and manage our Twitter account (@WSUSpokane) as well as having a personal account. An emerging area of public law and the open records act is the consideration of what constitutes an official record (with retention requirements, FOIA compliance and all the rest).

    There’s a blogging handbook for city council members with some guidelines relevant to Twitter and other social networks: //citycouncilbloghandbook.wikispaces.com/

    An excerpt: “An elected official should keep a diary of exactly what they post and when. Remember that a citizen can file a request for documents within any time period. It is entirely possible that someone might ask for ‘Council member _ posts on Twitter between May and June inclusive.'”

    I live tweet a number of events from the campus account. It’s like digital note taking in which I’m forced to choose the highlights (and make them fit into 140 characters–no mean feat). It defiitely requires multitasking but it doesn’t mean you’re ignoring the content–far from it.

    @BarbChamberlain

  • T.B.:

    Hi, Great post about Twitter. I think Twitter is going to be one of the stronger networks because of the fact that it is supported by so many industries. I also think when Twitter introduces some of it’s new functions, returning traffic will go up to show the real growth of the network. Keep up the good work!

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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