WATCH: Janesville City Councilman Jens Jorgensen denies texting about Monterey Dam during meeting
JANESVILLE—Council President Sam Liebert is among city council members and residents who suspect Vice President Jens Jorgensen was inappropriately texting his father and former Assembly Rep. Andy Jorgensen about city business during a recent Janesville City Council meeting.
Jens admitted texting his father throughout the March 27 meeting but denied it had anything to do with council business. He'll make an effort to not text during future meetings, Jens said.
“My father and I were talking like a father and son would about things going on in their lives,” Jens said.
Liebert isn't convinced. He said based on what he saw at the meeting he'd bet Jens and Andy were communicating about the Monterey Dam, which was one of meeting's topics.
“I don't think I would lose on that bet,” Liebert said.
While Jens was questioning officials about the Monterey Dam, Andy spoke and tried to cover with coughs, prompting Jens to bring up the topic or even change his line of questioning. Andy would then smile and nod, Liebert said.
Jens denied this, saying his father was too far back in the audience for him to hear even if Andy had said anything. Jens and his dad think similarly, which is why they believe dam repair is best, Jens said.
At one point in the meeting, Andy, who sat a few rows from the council members, illuminated his phone's screen and aimed it toward his son. Jens then immediately looked down at his phone, said Liebert, who sits beside Jorgensen on his left.
Video footage of the meeting shows several instances of Andy texting and Jens then looking down at the council table or his lap.
After the meeting, Liebert called Jorgensen and told him people noticed his conduct at the meeting and that it was inappropriate.
Jens told Liebert he had been texting his father about where they would be going to eat after the meeting, but Liebert noticed Jens on his phone throughout most of the six-hour meeting, Liebert said.
“It seemed Jens was on his phone almost all night,” he said.
Jens told The Gazette on Saturday his family is going through stressful hardships. Jens' grandfather has cancer, which is one the topics he and his dad were texting about, Jens said.
When asked if texting during a meeting is appropriate, Jens said he learned the practice is OK by watching other council members do it.
The Gazette filed an open records request with the city seeking all text messages and other electronic communications related to city business to and from city council members during the March 27 meeting.
Jens provided about half a dozen text messages between himself and a news anchor who wanted to interview him about the Monterey Dam decision. Jens didn't provide any records that showed he and Andy communicating about city business.
For the past year, Councilman Doug Marklein, who sits on Jorgensen's right, said he's seen Jens on his phones (Jens owns at least two cell phones) during meetings.
During the March 27 meeting, Marklein noticed eye contact between the Jorgensens. After the meeting, audience members told Marklein they saw unusual hand gestures and facial expressions between the two and that it appeared they were text messaging each other.
“I don't think that's the correct thing to do,” he said. “It is distracting.”
Council members, who are volunteers, sometimes have to address important personal issues during meetings, Jens said. Jens apologized for any confusion over what he was texting about.
One audience member who wished to remain anonymous said she saw Andy touch his ear while Jens was talking, and Jens then mentioned how he listens to his constituents. At least two other audience members told The Gazette they saw similar behavior and believed the Jorgensens were texting about city business.
Councilman Paul Williams sits several seats away from Jens. After a short recess, Williams saw Andy point to his phone while looking at Jens as if to signal Jens to pay attention to his own phone, Williams said.
People The Gazette spoke to agreed the apparent conduct was inappropriate.
The Janesville City Council allows residents during a public comment portion to speak to the council for four minutes each. After that, the council conducts its business without further input from the audience, unless there's a public hearing or other special circumstance.
Janesville City Council Policy 88 discourages the use of electronic devices by council members except to search the Internet for information related to a topic the council is discussing. The policy prohibits council members from using electronic devices to communicate about city business with anyone not at the meeting.
If Jens was texting his father about the Monterey Dam during the March 27 meeting, Liebert and Marklein agree Jens was violating at least the spirit of the policy. If Andy was messaging Jens about city business, Andy was essentially getting more than his four allotted minutes to speak, Liebert and Marklein said.
“The thought behind the policy is it's not fair to the public who we're supposed to be serving if you're having a private conversation one-on-one with a private medium and no one else is privy to that info,” Liebert said. “If Jens was talking about government policy of things that could affect public policy, he's really breaking the four-minute rule.”
Jens said the policy's wording is unclear. He said the policy should be revisited to clarify when electronic devices should be used. In the meantime, Jens said he'll make an effort to not text during council meetings.
Andy is associated with unions that wanted to see the Monterey Dam repaired, Jens said. Jens was the lone council member to vote to repair instead of remove the dam.
While campaigning, Andy invited Marklein to the Labor Temple for a meeting with unions who wanted to know Marklein's views, presumably to decide whether to endorse him, Marklein said.
Andy met Marklein at the door and sat in at the meeting where interviewers asked Marklein several questions about the dam, Marklein said.
“You could tell they were in favor of saving the dam,” he said.