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Huntington City Hall is shown on May 4, 2020.

HUNTINGTON — Huntington City Council members approved a resolution that prohibits them from using electronic communication devices during meetings.

The resolution, which passed during Monday’s meeting, amends the Rules of Council to prohibit council members from using electronic communication devices, such as cell phones, during public meetings. Of council members present, only Todd Sweeney and Tyler Bowen voted against it. Councilman Dale Anderson was absent Monday.

“The use of phones or other devices for texting or receiving texts, emailing or receiving emails, or other forms of electronic communication by Council members is prohibited while Council is in session except in the instance of a bona fide emergency, at which time the Council member shall notify the Chair prior to using the electronic device,” says the resolution.

The ordinance was sponsored by Councilman Pat Jones. He previously told The Herald-Dispatch that he wanted to reintroduce the ordinance after it was tabled by a committee following a Freedom of Information Act request made by the newspaper and learning more about communication made during a July 22 meeting of the city council.

The documents provided in response to the FOIA request showed that, during a July 22 meeting, Marshall University Board of Governors member Chris Miller, political strategist Michael Dillon and Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, contacted council members about a candidate who was being considered for a vacant seat at the time. The documents also showed that Anderson sent text messages to other council members, both present and absent.

The communication was not in violation of the West Virginia open meetings law.

Sweeney said he voted against it as he felt it could be an issue when council members need to look up information. He gave an example that occurred at the end of Monday’s meeting, where Councilwoman Tia Rumbaugh recalled from memory a note about a non-profit organization’s program that was on her phone in the good and welfare portion. Sweeney said there are more pressing issues for the council.

“What if I would need to look up some definitions or need to look up another ordinance?” he said.

After the meeting, Bowen called the resolution as written was a “knee-jerk reaction” and “half-assed,” adding that it was the same resolution introduced to the Administration and Finance Committee last month. Bowen chairs that committee, in which the ordinance was tabled for six months to allow for a full review of the Rules of Conduct. He still plans to pursue the review of rules as the last review was about a decade ago, he said. Bowen is part of the council’s Rules and Ethics Committee.

Bowen said he discussed his concerns with Council Chairman Mike Shockley about the resolution, such as that as written the new rule prohibits only communication and it could be unclear why a member was on their phone during a meeting. The rule could have also been rewritten to prohibit “disruptive” use of a phone, which would tie it to a section in the rules regarding disruptions and disciplining that action, Bowen said. Had the changes been added, he would have been in favor of the rule.

“He’s had over 30 days. He’s not changed a single word. He took no context into our conversation … I wish he would have sent it back to the administration. We could have tightened it up,” Bowen said.

Shockley originally introduced the resolution. After Monday’s meeting, he said he was “relieved” to see it pass, adding that the integrity of how the council does business is a “top priority.”

“This is something to show transparency, that the council has integrity up here of how we do business,” he said. “We’re doing it on the best interests of the people.”

Moving forward, council members will get tablets that do not receive communication to use during meetings, which will also limit the use of paper, Shockley said. The City Clerk’s Office will be able to upload documents directly to the tablets before meetings and council members can take notes on the devices.

The texts that were exchanged about the business on the agenda at the July 22 meeting weren’t a violation of West Virginia open meetings law. Shockley said that the law should be reviewed in light of this case.

“I think that the integrity of how you do business any time you’re in session and it’s open to the public, I feel that the integrity has to be there,” Shockley said. “You can’t have sidebar conversations in the middle of a public meeting. You can’t have someone from the public walk up, whisper in your ear and go back and sit down.”

Carole Boster, a resident of Huntington, was the only person to give public comment at the meeting about the ordinance. In her remarks, she said constituents can contact council members in several ways, such as emails, phone calls or texts, and she hoped that constituents feel like that communication to council members is welcomed.

“I feel like when I do that, when I come to my council person or a member of the administration, I’m showing them the respect of the position that they hold, and by listening to me, they show me that same mutual respect,” she said. “And I would like to thank each of you for considering the opinions of people.”

In other business items, the City Council passed an ordinance that permanently repeals Huntington’s business and occupation tax for retail businesses and restaurants. All council members present voted in favor of it. The tax has been suspended already for about a year and a half during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the revenue loss from the repeal will be about $2 million a year, Mayor Steve Williams has previously told The Herald-Dispatch that the city’s 1% Municipal Sales and Service and Use Tax offsets the reduction of revenue from the B&O tax. For fiscal year 2021, the sales tax revenue exceeded the city’s budget expectations by almost $2 million.

McKenna Horsley is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering local government in Huntington and Cabell County. Follow her on Twitter @Mckennahorsley.

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