Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood, center, poses with representatives from the city’s fire department during the Aug. 15, 2016 City Council meeting. Records show Lockwood sent and received dozens of texts from supporters during zoning hearings held in April and June, sparking complaints from opponents who claim they violate open meetings laws. CHRIS JOYNER/CJOYNER@AJC.COM

Texting during meetings bad public policy, AG’s office says

Georgia’s open meetings laws do not specifically forbid public officials from having private conversations during a meeting using their smart phones, and that riles Attorney General Sam Olens, his spokesman said.

“The public should demand better behavior from their elected officials,” Nick Genesi said. But, he added, “Right now the current statute doesn’t cover this gross violation of public policy.”

Genesi said his boss wanted to include language reining in the use of technology, such as text messaging, during otherwise public meetings in his rewrite of state sunshine laws four years ago, but he said Olens got resistance from state lawmakers.

The exchanging of text messages by public officials has emerged in the north Fulton County suburb of Milton as part of a bitter zoning fight. A local resident who ended up on the losing side of a development issue discovered through an Open Records Act request that Mayor Joe Lockwood and some city council members had been sending and receiving text messages from people in the audience on the other side of the issue.

Copies of the texts viewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show opponents of the zoning plan lobbying Lockwood while supporters were testifying in the public hearing.

“It stinks,” said resident Laura Rencher, who requested the texts. “It’s just not transparent.”

That may be true, but state sunshine laws do not necessarily forbid it.

Government transparency advocates agree that one-on-one conversations, including by email or text, do not violate state law, even if they are not in the spirit of doing the public’s business in public.

Milton Councilman Bill Lusk said he plans to introduce a rule forbidding texting during public meetings.

Does texting during a meeting make government less transparent? Click here to read this week’s AJC Watchdog column for more information.

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