The State Journal has started an interesting discussion about the use of text messaging and emails between alders, staff and lobbyists during council meetings.
In the interests of open government, here's what I think should be done about it: nothing.
When I sat in the big chair on the podium, I'd often notice that there were alders milling around in the shadows in the back of the room, chatting with one another. They might have been discussing what to order on their pizza, the incompetence of the mayor, or deciding the fate of the Edgewater. Whatever it was, as long as the gathering didn't constitute a quorum of a committee, it wasn't illegal. You can't stop people from talking to one another.
The electronic communication that now goes on during meetings is no different, except that alders can remain in their seats.
When alders text each other, they're essentially creating a publicly accessible transcript of their otherwise off the record conversations. The stuff in those messages isn't the kind of thing public officials would otherwise be saying into the microphone on the floor for the record. Instead, it's the kind of thing they'd otherwise be saying to one another in a whisper in the back of the room.
The upshot is that the permanent public records created by electronic communications are providing the public with more information and insight into the thinking and motivations of people who represent them, not less. If we cut it off, the conversations will just go back to the back of the room where they'll be unrecorded. Alders will get more exercise, but the public won't be any better off for it.
Now, of course, what's likely to happen is that all public officials will be a lot more careful. They might even use it to play the system. If it were me, I'd text something like, "Gosh, that Dean Mosiman is just the best damn reporter in America, isn't he!"
But there's something about texting that texting addicts can't resist. They can't help themselves. If we just leave well enough alone, we're bound to get more good stuff. Let's do nothing about it.