Trick or tweet

At Monday night’s Town Council meeting, when once again I heard the tremor in a grown man’s voice as he spoke at the podium in front of a ring of council members, a phalanx of staff, a smattering of people in the audience and a couple of TV cameras, it brought home to me how important some of these issues are to people. That they would step way beyond their comfort zone to address council in person, rather than just sending an email, writing a letter or leaving a voicemail message, underscores that what they have to say matters to them intensely. They want to be heard.

But what are Penny Rich and Donna Bell doing instead of listening to these constituents? Rich and Bell are tweeting snide remarks to their friends.

Not only does slipping your friends digital notes written at the third-grade reading level instead of paying attention to the work taxpayers are paying you to do show an astounding lack of leadership, it’s just plain rude.

I’m not sold on “being on the twitter,” as an old-time baseball player-turned-announcer calls it, mainly because I have yet to see a tweet that is anything other than snide remarks and mean gossip that tweeters don’t have the courage to say to their target’s face.

I would like to think that our elected leaders are above that sort of thing, and the Code of Ethics council approved agrees with me. There’s an entire section devoted to “Acting With Integrity”:

“Behaving consistently and with respect toward everyone with whom they interact” … “Exhibiting trustworthiness” … “Living as if they are on duty as Council members regardless of where they are or what they are doing” … “Using their best independent judgment to pursue the common good as they see it” … “refraining from seeking or receiving information about quasi-judicial matters outside of the quasi-judicial proceedings themselves” … “Presenting their opinions to all in a reasonable, forthright and consistent manner” … “Treating other Council members and the public with respect and honoring the opinions of others even when the Council members disagree with those opinions” … “Not reaching conclusions on issues until all sides have been heard” … “Showing respect for their offices and not behaving in ways that reflect badly on those offices” …

How does tweeting snarky insults about the topics under discussion or the people presenting and discussing them fit in with any of those tenets?
– Nancy Oates

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  1. John Kramer

     /  October 20, 2011

    Oh, come on! You really expect them to act like that? They’re just progressive politicians after all, LOL.

    Too bad the voters won’t realize this sort of thing and act accordingly.

  2. Ph. Johnson-Sledge

     /  October 20, 2011

    This, and many other acts of unprofessionalism, is exactly why both Penny Rich and Donna Bell must go. Behaving like “mean” girls in the eighth grade makes them completely unworthy of representing anyone. The question is, who will hold them accountable for such

  3. George C

     /  October 20, 2011

    I have several questions for you:
    1 – how do you know they were tweeting?
    2 – how do you know, if they were tweeting, that it was to their friends?
    3 – how do you know, if they were tweeting, that they were tweeting snide remarks?
    It would seem to me that to level such criticisms on someone, Council member or not, you should give some information concerning the factual basis for such criticism(s).

  4. George, I’m not familiar with the “snide” remarks tweets but it is clear that Donna has tweeted during meetings.

    If anyone is interested in how to find when and if a Council member has tweeted during a meeting, I have the raw data and will be happy to provide it. As far as Facebooking, I didn’t automate that search (I despise FB and it’s continuing compromise on privacy) but it’s pretty easy to step back through its web interface to see who is updating during meetings.

    Finally, I don’t get your distinction between tweeting and tweeting to friends.

    Is it acceptable for a Council member to whip out their cellphone and chatting during Council proceedings whomever the call is to?

    This issue isn’t about looking up data or reviewing the agenda online or following along with a projected presentation, this is about paying attention to the task at hand.

  5. runner

     /  October 20, 2011

    Wow, it looks like George C has become the new Chief Apologist for the so-called Progressives on the CHTC. Congratulations on your new role.

    You’ll need to learn how to explain away a lot of unexplainable behavior.

  6. George C

     /  October 20, 2011

    I could envision a situation where someone watching on TV might tweet a Council member to ask them to ask a question about what is being presented or discussed. I don’t know if Council members are tweeting or not but for Nancy to state that they are tweeting snide remarks to their friends without stating how she knows that seems either unfair or biased or both.

  7. George C

     /  October 20, 2011

    The only person I owe an explanation to is my wife when I come home late.

  8. Terri Buckner

     /  October 20, 2011

    Nancy–are you on Twitter now or are you taking your column from something someone else told you?

    Will–how do you know those tweets weren’t during a break? Did you share your concerns with Donna or Penny privately and give them a chance to acknowledge their mistake or explain (as I did with reference to my own use of email during an OWASA meeting) that I was looking up data?

    Choosing not to vote for someone because you believe they have violated the ethics policy is one thing, but I am equally uncomfortable with public accusations without 1) direct and verifiable evidence and 2) without first privately contacting the individual to share your concern. It is sensational though. Is that the goal?

  9. Terri, I’ve tried to explain this before. I’ll try once more.

    I was watching Council Sept. 26th from home via the ‘net. During the meeting a tweet popped up from @Donna_Bell0. I was shocked.

    Here are a few of tweets from her that night:

    @ElectJason watch and learn, grasshopper
    @electjason what are you learning so grasshopper?

    At the time, @Donna_Bell0 followed me (it appears she has since dropped her subscription to @citizenwill ). I did not contact her privately at the time but tweeted the following:

    “Umm, is it OK for Council to tweet during a meeting?” Sept. 26th, 7:52pm

    At the time, Donna was tweeting with Jason Baker (@ElectJason). Because of the limitations of twitter, I took this quick response from Jason as a reprimand of my tweet:

    @Donna_Bell0 I’m learning the many definitions of “cheap shots.”

    He was actually commenting on a little tiff between Jim and Matt.

    We continued to “discuss” this back and forth as the meeting progressed.

    CW: @ElectJason Rly? Do you plan to tweet from behind the dias during Council meetings also?

    EJ: @citizenwill Undecided. Conversations across multiple media are harder to follow, but also may increase access.

    CW: @ElectJason Tech Board advised UNC Sch. Govt. online conversations during meetings not cool,suggest rethink conversations outside public vw

    EJ: @citizenwill A tool is just that, a tool. What matters is how it is used.

    CW: @ElectJason Tech Board advised UNC Sch. Govt. online conversations during meetings not cool,suggest rethink conversations outside public vw

    CW: @ElectJason Big distinction. Live Council meeting, testimony by public, attention should b on the job b4 u. Can’t believe u don’t see diff

    EJ: @citizenwill Related issue came up discussing meetings via email at the advisory board training session last week. UNC SOG mixed in opinion.

    It goes on, but you get a sense. Now, I saw Donna using her computer at this point but there’s no telling if she was following Jason and I’s conversation but I’m sure she is aware of my concern. She also has refrained from tweeting during a Council meeting since.

    I had one person complain to me that I was picking on Donna so I went back and looked at all the Council members who have twitter accounts and did a fast analysis of tweet timestamps to Council meeting times. It wasn’t a thorough enough exam to determine if someone – like Mark who was sick a few weeks ago – was home that night or not.

    Finally, you should be well aware of the issues and concerns surrounding this issue.

    I lobbied both as a member of the Tech Board and prior for greater use of computers by Council. The amount of paper generated for meetings was astonishing. Running binders out to Council homes wasteful. The paper medium too restrictive for some kinds of presentations (3D mockups of site plans, for instance).

    You will recall our Town Attorney kept rejecting our efforts on the grounds that Council members would be tempted to have online conversations during Council meetings out of the public’s view. He felt so strongly about it that, essentially, it slowed the adoption of modern tech for Council by years. At the time, I argued that Council members would surely have it in them to be professional, practice a bit of restraint and refrain from online chit-chat. To Ralph’s credit, he was right and I was wrong.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  October 20, 2011

    So you are making accusations by data interpolation (time stamps). Kind of risky IMHO. But again, my question for you is have you talked to Penny or Donna directly? The fact that you say Donna is no longer tweeting during Council meetings would see to indicate that she learned of the concern and discontinued the practice. Isn’t that what you want from a good council member?

  11. Will, I think your point is valid, and as I’ve said, I’m a little undecided how I would approach this if elected. Certainly during discussion and public comment, speakers deserve undivided attention, but there may be opportunities during “breaks in the action” for tweeting (or whatever us kids are doing these days). I don’t think the problem is technology, but how it’s used. For example, during Tuesday’s planning board meeting it was really handy to have my laptop in order to look up a minor subdivision that we had approved several months prior to see if the proposed Northside / Pine Knolls NCD changes would handle that particular situation, something I couldn’t have done with a paper packet. They key is to resist the temptation to let technology become a distraction and let it remove your attention from the matter at hand. I don’t think either Penny or Donna have let social media become a distraction, and have in fact really enjoyed Twitter as a source of information when I can’t personally be at meetings. As we all know, the council meeting summary, and often even the video, don’t tell the full story of what happened.

  12. Would the following tweet from Penny Rich “live tweeting” from the Carol Woods forum be considered a snide remark? “Matt Cz bashing the SUP process once again” Lainey Dale showed it to me during the forum because I leave my smart phone in the car during forums. She did leave out my remarks about courage and vision being important to Chapel Hill 20/20 but probably because of that darned 144 character limit.

    Perhaps the community could let me know whether I should consider it as such or simply important information that Penny appropriately felt needed to be shared with her followers and the citizens of Chapel Hill. Should I expect any further tweets on my comment here?

  13. DOM

     /  October 20, 2011

    Penny Rich “live tweeting” from the Carol Woods forum: “Matt Cz bashing the SUP process once again.”

    Wow, if that Tweet is real, it’s a pretty poor example of leadership.

  14. Terri Buckner

     /  October 20, 2011

    Penny’s tweeted this response to Nancy and Will’s accusations :
    “For the record, I don’t tweet during TC mts. Once again made up facts by a shock jock blogger. I do check in with my son’s, I’m a mom first.”

    So is it OK to tweet during a council meeting if it’s with your kids? This illustrates my frustration. If you have to make multiple exemptions for something (Ok if it’s with your kids, if it’s during a break, if it’s part of research on a topic, etc), it’s a matter for personal responsibility, not for policy. And if you find out someone has broken the trust, take action against them, not the technology. But get the details first, and then confirm the details with the person directly.

  15. DOM, It can be found at @pennyrich 18 October 3:49 PM. The Carol Woods forum was from 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM. In case it gets deleted due to technical malfunction I re-tweeted it without comment from my account @mattCfortownC. Would love to have you as a follower. Only have 37 so far!

  16. Shock jock blogger — is that snide? Help me community. I need to know what’s snide because it appears that my definition of snide is not the operative one in some circles.

  17. Nancy Oates

     /  October 20, 2011

    Perhaps “I’m a mom first” should be Rich’s campaign slogan, if she runs next election cycle. Here’s advice from a mom who raised her children successfully before Twitter was invented: If Rich’s husband can’t help with child care and her kids aren’t old enough to be left alone without supervision, she should hire a babysitter. Then she can turn her full attention to the task taxpayers are paying her to do.

    As for “shock jock blogger,” I think I’ll put that on my resume.

  18. Matt, Penny tweeting during a forum – no matter the content – is distinctly different than tweeting/facebooking/friendfacing during a Council meeting. I’m satisfied that Donna knows what I think about the practice and is free to do as she sees fit.

    I will post a script used to pull historical tweet usage and the raw tweet archives I downloaded from Twitter on my website this weekend for anyone who cares to pursue the specifics further – I have no interest in finding or counting further offenses.

    Finally, it has been strange to see the kind of inverted logic applied to this issue when contrasted with all the concern about in-car distractions and driving. Yes, tweeting during Council meeting isn’t as dangerous as operating a car while distracted but both activities involve taking ones eyes off the road to the detriment of others.

    Over the years I’ve observed some really petty behavior by some Councillors – rolling of eyes, giggled conversations during presentations, etc. Never understood how folks tolerated it (and how Councillors thought it was OK).

    I’ve attended a zillion (see: Used Cars) Council meetings. Spoken before Council many times. My expectation is that given the effort to show up and say something, Council would extend me the courtesy of actually listening.

  19. FWIW – Perl script to access unprotected Twitter streams.

    Usage: -u twitter_screen_name

    ex. -u citizenwill > results.xml

    Perl script expects CURL to be installed in local environment. Cygwin for Windows does the trick.

    xxx.xml – raw dump of tweets – tech folks can run XSLT to pull relevant info

    xxx_tweet_times.txt – creation of times of tweets in GMT +0 form. Subtract 4 or 5 hours based on time of year to get EST.

    ex. 7:52pm or 19:52 EST was 23:52 GMT+0 on Sept. 26th, 2011

  20. John Kramer

     /  October 20, 2011

    I claim the title of “Howard Stern” of


    Matt C for president. Yeah.

    They should make them check their electronics at the door. The whole idea of tweeting, texting etc during a meeting is stupid and how these people got elected is beyond me. I suppose Matt C is a rocket scientist amongst them because he brilliantly deduced he could leave his smartphone in the car.

    I am headed to the furniture store. I hope Sofa King is open, I need a new couch.

  21. runner

     /  October 20, 2011

    Where’s the leader of the bunch to set everyone straight? One comment from the Mayor during a meeting will end this practice (or, at least make it perceived negatively)

  22. Tim

     /  October 20, 2011

    This is incredibly childish and unprofessional behavior. Thanks for calling her out on this Nancy. Penny and Donna should be ashamed. We deserve more respectful representation and respect from out council.


  23. Ph. Johnson-Sledge

     /  October 21, 2011

    And, I’ll ask again, how will the offenders be held accountable for such behavior? Penny’s
    follow-up comment comes off as if she is teflon. Who polices council? I’ve been asking this
    question for years.

  24. Road Warrior

     /  October 21, 2011

    Let’s BAN CELL PHONES FROM CHAMBERS, NOT CARS! Clearly that is where the problem is. Disgusting.

  25. I don’t expect much traction here, but the fact is, Twitter in particular and social media in general are important innovations in communication – that is, helping people communicate ideas they feel are worthwhile to other people. Just like countless other innovations over the years – texting, cellphones, email, fax machines, television, radio, the telephone, the Post Office, and even books – these new tools were (are) initially viewed with suspicion and skepticism. Like the others, they will eventually became an accepted part of civilization. Some people don’t like TV or email today, and that’s OK. But do you want your elected officials to try to figure out if and how these innovations can help them communicate? Or would you rather they limit themselves to only the technologies that were around in 1876, when Robert’s Rules of Order were established? Of course Council members should pay proper attention at meetings. We should trust them to use their own good judgement, wrt Tweets as well as everything else.

    That said, it surely looks like some people were unaware of the public nature and trackability of Tweets. But just like with cellphones and driving, the technology is not the problem.