Don’t text and vote.

That’s the new mantra in the Akron City Council chambers where council members have agreed not to use their cellphones to text, tweet or surf the Web during meetings, except in the case of an emergency.

Council members discussed the issue Monday during a lengthy caucus, stopping short of actually adding a cellphone-meeting ban to their rules. They agreed to police themselves and for the council president to remind them if they slip and text.

The cellphone ban appears to be an unusual step at least in Ohio. Kent Scarrett, a spokesman for the Ohio Municipal League, said he is unaware of any other cities that have asked members to refrain from using their phones during meetings.

The issue, though, is making headlines in Florida, with the Jacksonville council embroiled in a lawsuit concerning texting. Three Jacksonville council members changed their vote on firefighter-promotions legislation during a meeting after getting a text from the fire union president. Some council members then refused to share their texts. A citizens group sued council members, alleging they had broken the state’s open meetings law by texting each other during a meeting through a third party and the open records law by not providing the texts, according to a recent Florida Times-Union story.

Though the question of texting in meetings hasn’t gotten that much attention, the overall problem of the distraction of cellphones has. A study released earlier this year by Kent State University researchers found that the more students use cellphones, the lower their grades fall.

Jacob Barkley, an associate professor of exercise science and one of the study’s authors, said the results translate beyond the college classroom to other environments. He thinks council’s self-cellphone ban is a great idea.

“We know the majority of cellphone use is for leisure purposes,” he said. “As people become more and more aware of that, you’ll see more movements like what council is doing, people saying, ‘This is a time for us to work, so put it away and let’s work.’?”

Barkley said more workplaces are posting signs with messages like, “Tech-free place.”

“I wonder if there’s a shift in the public consciousness that we’re a little too attached to these devices, and it may be useful for us to unplug from time to time,” said Barkley, who was calling from his cellphone while vacationing with his family at Universal Studios.

Public perception

Akron Councilwoman Marilyn Keith brought up the cellphone issue after noticing council members using their phones during meetings to send texts — sometimes to each other — tweet and look up information on the Internet. She said she was worried about the public’s perception that members aren’t paying attention.

“When you look across and see council members texting, there’s an audience out there,” she said.

Keith thinks there are a lot of things the council has gotten away from that are “good manners/good form.”

Asked on Facebook and Twitter whether council members’ texting bothers them, the response from Beacon Journal readers was mixed. Some said they think council members are likely doing council business on their phones. Others, though, disagree.

“It bothers me so, so much!” one reader wrote on Facebook. “The public sees them working for such a small period of time, I would think it would bother the council members to be seen being so disrespectful.”

Not using cellphones will likely be more painful for a few of the younger members of council. Councilwoman Tara Mosley-Samples admitted enjoying retweeting tweets by a Beacon Journal reporter during meetings. (She made several retweets during council’s caucus in which the cellphone-use question was discussed.)

“I guess I can wait an hour,” Mosley-Samples said, referring to the typical length of council’s Monday-night meetings.

DeAndre Forney, another younger council member who is filling a term through the end of the year, said Keith’s concerns, originally raised last week, have made him more aware of his own cellphone use. Forney, however, said he thinks council members need to be aware of modern technological trends. For example, he said congressional members tweeted during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address while sitting a few feet from the president.

Councilman Russel Neal Jr. said he often has notes on his cellphone that he refers to during council meetings and sometimes uses his phone to look up information.

“These are tools, too,” he said, waving his phone.

Tablets for research

Council President Mike Freeman said the council soon will have tablets at its disposal that can replace the research function that phones currently serve. He said council will take the plunge after the first of the year to go paperless — a step that has been discussed for three years — with legislation accessed via tablets. A wireless router will be installed in council chambers.

Keith said she thinks the public perception of the use of a tablet isn’t the same as that of a cellphone.

Councilman Mike Williams, an outgoing council member, said he thinks Keith’s comments have made council members more aware of how their actions are perceived. He suggested that the president remind members who defy the ban.

Councilman Jim Hurley, an electrician, joked that he could install buzzers so the president can jolt council members.

“Nothing over 9 volts,” Freeman said, laughing.

“You just increased the number of people running for council president, just to have that power,” Williams said, referring to the large pool of council members interested in leading the new council that starts in January.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com or on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.