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Board discuses outside communication during meetings

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FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is aiming to be more transparent with the community through open communication.

At their Nov. 28 meeting, Commissioner Laura Semanson said board members have discussed the topic with each other after noticing sidebar conversations and texting during meetings.

“We’ve allowed ourselves to become too distracted during meetings,” Semanson said. “We owe our complete attention to the business at hand.”

During the meetings, she said she’s made it a practice to relinquish private communication devices and she hopes other board members will follow suit. She gives her phone to someone on staff and tells her family to text 911 if they need her help.

“There was a recent meeting where there was someone before us for a public hearing and mid-motion was waiting to hear from us,” she said. “There was a lot of side chatter and other things going on. It presented us unprofessionally and was also a dereliction of duty that when someone comes to be heard, we owe them our complete attention.”

In addition to surrendering devices like cell phones, both personal and county issued ones, Semanson suggested using “hot microphones” which would pick up any sounds.

“The public has a right to know what we are discussing and question what conversations are going on,” she said. “If we are having communications of any time during a meeting, the public is entitled to know what we’re discussing whether electronically or during sidebars between us.”

Commissioner Pete Amos echoed her sentiments and said most of the distractions are due to the board talking to each other while business is going on.

“At one point I couldn’t hear what (a staff member) was saying and I had to ask him to repeat it,” Amos said. “Everyone was chatting amongst themselves. It’s a good idea to leave the mic on at all times except if you have to cough.”

However, he said he has a lot of employees that depend on him and when he goes to work sessions during the work day, he needs to be able to get in contact with them using his phone.

Semanson said work sessions could be treated differently than regular meetings since the public doesn’t come before the board to speak on issues.

“I certainly understand if you have a business concern or something happening with your kids,” Semanson said. “That’s more the exception than the rule and we should have some way to accommodate that. When we’re here, we need to be present.”

Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said it’s up to the chairman to call the meeting back to order if there is a lot of extra talking occurring. Chairman Todd Levent agreed and said he can do that as long as the other members respect it.

Former Planning Commission Chairman Robert Hoyt said he has witnessed occasions where their board members would be texting someone about an item being discussed.

“Public meetings are for the public,” County Attorney Ken Jarrard said. “I’ve seen other jurisdictions struggle with this. It’s challenging to do something unless everyone signs on that they’ll do it that way. It’ll last for a few meetings then people will become looser with it.”

In January, the board will revisit its own rules and decide if they should put something in about transparent conversations during meetings.


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