Messaging-happy officials may be cut off 

San Francisco’s most tech-savvy politico said he wants to limit lawmakers and lobbyists from instant-messaging each other during public meetings.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said Tuesday his office is crafting legislation that addresses the issue of policymakers, lobbyists and commissioners using instant communication to discuss topics during public meetings.

“I think there are a lot of lobbyists telling people how to vote and what to think, and that’s not right,” Newsom said.

Newsom announced his plans amid concerns that Supervisor David Campos had texted commissioners during Wednesday’s Police Commission meeting while the group discussed whether to allow the police chief to develop a Taser policy. Campos said he texted commissioners to express his concerns about the process, but he doesn’t believe that his messages influenced the outcome (commissioners voted against allowing the Taser policy to be developed).

“People communicate by e-mail all the time and Facebook, so where do you draw the line?” Campos said.

Newsom’s legislation was inspired by California Assembly Speaker John Perez’s recent announcement that he wants to ban texting between lawmakers and lobbyists on the Assembly floor.

“It’s becoming a hot issue,” said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “In the context of public meetings, it does raise some legal questions.”

But a ban like this would crack down on potential Brown Act violations, the law that ensures government decisions are made with public input and deliberation, Dorsey said.

The recent move to ban texting between policymakers and lobbyists is commendable, but not really enforceable, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

“If someone starts texting, are the police going to grab [the phone] and see who it is on the other side?” Scheer said.

Besides, supervisors and commissioners could be influenced by lobbyists via text right before or after a meeting, he said. If the mayor really wants to resolve the problem, The City should require text messages to be public record, Scheer said.

Tony Winnicker, spokesman for Newsom, said it’s a matter of maintaining transparency during meetings and preserving the quality of public debate.

“Lobbying is free speech, but in the midst of a public meeting and debate amongst commissioners, a text message from lobbyists or an advocate that influences diminishes the debate,” Winnicker said.

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