Council president bans cellphones during meetings

Issue comes to head after union lobbyist texts council members before vote

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Amid a growing controversy about lobbying by text message going on during City Council meetings, Council President Greg Anderson on Thursday asked members to keep cellphones off while legislation banning the practice makes its way into law.

"There is too much at stake to not address the practice, especially when it can potentially be used to promote or defeat legislation during a vote," Anderson wrote in a memorandum to members.

DOCUMENT: Anderson's memorandum to
City Council Members

The issue has come under fire this week for last-minute text lobbying during meetings. Mayor Lenny Curry, Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County and other groups have criticized the practice and suggested it is a violation of the Florida Sunshine Law.

"An open meeting where you can't follow what the proceedings are about isn't an open meeting at all," Concerned Taxpayers' John Winkler said. 

During council meetings it's not usual to see council members working on computers, texting on their phones and walking out to talk to others in what is called the green room.

This issue came to a head during the last meeting when it was learned that the president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters was texting several council members as they were preparing to vote on a budget amendment to spend $320,000 to fund 17 district chiefs positions created under Mayor Alvin Brown's administration that were not funding in Curry's spending plan.

Concerned Taxpayers plans to sue City Council over the matter and will ask a judge to throw out the budget bill that was passed after the texting exchange.

Councilman Reggie Brown, one of those on the receiving end of the controversial texts, said he did nothing wrong. He said some people just like to "whine" when they lose.

"There was nothing illegal, immoral or unethical done -- at least with my involvement with it. I have a right to talk to any lobbyist, Randy Wyse or anybody else," Brown said.

Councilman Bill Gulliford filed legislation that would not allow texting during meetings with certain groups.

"My proposal bans two-way texting between council members during a council meeting (while) we're discussing a particular issue, between council members and members of the mayor's office, union representatives, lobbyists," Gulliford said.

Newly elected Councilwoman Katrina Brown, who changed her position to vote for funding the fire chief positions during the course of the meeting, said the texts she received during the meeting (shown, right) shown had nothing to do with how she voted. She said it was the speakers who changed her mind.

Katrina Brown said Gulliford's legislation implies something else.

"As a new council member, any bill of this nature makes it seem like we did something unethical," she said.

"Unfortunately, we have a few people who, when things don't go their way, they whine. We have to be better leaders in the city. Things are not always going to go our way," Reggie Brown said.

"In my office ... we abide by the Sunshine Law," Curry said. "There's not even any space; there shouldn't be any space to question it. Do the right thing and be transparent. That's how we should lead. That's how we should govern."

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