Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Officials sending emails during meetings are no laughing matter

For some, it might seem like just a funny story: the Oregonian newspaper used a public records law request to obtain the e-mails that Oregon city council members and city staff text-mailed to other people during a meeting.

While these officials were supposed to be listening to public testimony, they instead were doing what they called “multi-tasking.” As the Oregonian described Commissioner Erik Sten’s busy meeting: “He listens to public testimony with his ears and uses his fingers to snap together a quote for a union press release, celebrate Oregon City’s decision to fight global warming or taking a tip on how he mispronounced a name.”

During the Jan. 18 hearing, Sten “led the council with 15 emails,” pointed out the Oregonian. He wasn’t the only one using a Blackberry or other device to correspond with other people during the meeting.

Should we laugh at this, admire the people who multi-task, or should we call it for what it really is: Ignorant. Disrespectful. Shameful. And yes, a serious problem.

Talking with the executive director of an agricultural commodity organization this past fall, she talked about the “Crackberries” that have become an addiction to politicians and their staff.

She talked about numerous times that she or others in the agricultural community have made serious, well-meaning, important presentations to elected officials in Washington, D.C. or at committee hearings that sometimes travel the country.

She said how frustrating it is to see these officials and their staff pay attention more to their Blackberries or other such devices than to the farmers, ranchers and their representatives that have committed their valuable time and resources to attend these events, whether it’s across the state or on the other side of the country.

Are all these officials doing business that just can’t wait and takes a higher priority than dealing with these people in front of them? Are their staff perhaps recording the points made by the farm speakers, ensuring they captured the message that will influence important legislation later?

One look at the staff yawning and clicking on their devices and it’s clear that most of the time they’re bored, their minds are wandering, and probably what they’re reading or typing has little or nothing to do with the business on hand.

In the same day’s Oregonian, there was another short story about how a University of Florida psychologist believes cell phones are a growing addiction.

The newspaper said people suffer anxiety and it interferes with their lives if they can’t use their cell phone for a couple of hours.

Almost every day there seems to be some new technological gizmo that excites people about how much more connected, entertained and up to date they can be with families, friends and the world.

Ironically, the more communicated they become through the technology, the less in touch they became with the real world and people who may be standing in front of them or living with them.

Why should we care what elected officials and their staff are doing at meetings or hearings?

Often, these are the rare times when they can meet the public directly and interact face-to-face. If they listen carefully, they might learn from each other or have a useful question and answer exchange that avoids further miscommunication and problems down the road.

At the very least, these officials should turn off those cell phone, Blackberries and other technical devices and show the respect and interest that the public deserves.

Otherwise future requests under public records laws may reveal much more embarrassing and awkward moments for those who are elected or hired to serve the public.

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