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Monday, September 24, 2007

Open Public Meetings--By Phone or Email?

This Tacoma News-Tribune story explores the idea of open public meetings in which council members call in by phone or participate by computer "chat."

We think a little technology is good but too much means there really isn't a meaningful public "meeting." It's OK when one council member cannot physically be present and calls in via speaker phone so that all those in the traditional public meeting can hear. What's not OK is conducting an online cyber meeting in which no physical meeting takes place. If 90% of communication is visual (picking up on visual cues from the speaker such as a cocked eye brow or rolling eyes), then the public can learn much more of what's going on when they can physically observe the council members. You probably get much less out of a conference call than a face-to-face meeting. You probably get even less out of email exchanges. (If email really communicated as much as a face-to-face meeting, why do we need those stupid emoticons?) For centuries the judicial system has appreciated the fact that it takes a face-to-face communication to get all the meaning. Courts have long required witnesses to almost always be physically so the jury can "look them in the eye." The same principal should apply to open meetings.