Lawmaker’s amendment would have mandated training for his colleagues on muting their phones

The tongue-in-cheek proposal, now withdrawn, grew out of months on Zoom and conference calls

Recent events have raised questions about the telecommunications skills of state legislators.
Recent events have raised questions about the telecommunications skills of state legislators.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Steve Annear is in pursuit of stories so odd or unconventional you’ll want to bring them up at dinner parties. Have you seen something you’d like answers to? A giant door? Or perhaps a graveyard of rocking horses, a strange stone marker on an island, or old trophies under a bridge? Let us know by filling out this form. If your suggestion is picked, we’ll check it out for you.

Elected officials — they’re just like us!

State Representative Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, has been working from home for months during the pandemic, conducting business with colleagues through conference calls and on Zoom.


And during these meetings he’s heard it all — mostly unintentionally, because people have failed to mute their phones when they’re not actually talking.

“Babies crying, people eating, people ordering from restaurants for delivery,“ he said.

The House passed rules in early May to allow for remote voting by legislators, and they had their first formal session with remote voting on May 6. As he spoke to a reporter, Pignatelli could hear the beep of a fire alarm that was in need of a new battery coming through someone’s phone.

To bring some lightheartedness to the unprecedented legislative session, Pignatelli tacked an amendment onto a $459 million economic development bill last week that seemed to resonate with others who’ve been trapped in their homes.

“There shall be an annual training session for members of the House of Representatives on how to mute a phone during a teleconference,” said Pignatelli’s proposal, which was added to House bill H.4789.

The subjects covered in the yearly training were listed as “recognizing the mute icon . . . the speakerphone function, how to push a button in a phone interface, recognizing when the mute function of a phone is enabled, and recognizing the appropriate circumstances to utilize the mute.”


The House and Senate passed separate versions of the bill this week. But Pignatelli, chairman of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, said he withdrew his amendment near the end of debate, sparing colleagues from any potential future phone training, no matter how badly they may need it.

So why file it in the first place? A dose of humor felt appropriate, he said.

“I was trying to add a little levity to an already stressful and tense time,” said Pignatelli, who has been working from the Berkshires, some 150 miles from the State House, where he’d usually be at this time of year. “It wasn’t meant to be taken that seriously, but just to have fun and show our colleagues that your House of Representatives are human beings.”

Pignatelli thinks it served its purpose.

“Everyone who is working from home during #covid19 can sympathize,” Act on Mass, a grass-roots organization that keeps track of what’s happening on Beacon Hill, tweeted last week.

A State House News reporter asked Pignatelli on Twitter if he would give a proper demonstration of his proposal when calling in to debate it. (He didn’t. But he did reply with a GIF of someone muting a phone, writing “tutorial to come”).

Representative Susannah Whipps said it was “an amendment we can all get behind” and shared pictures of how to mute and unmute an iPhone, an apparent attempt to help Pignatelli push his agenda.


Representative Mindy Domb called it her “favorite amendment to the economic development bond bill.” Others tried to get the hashtag “I Stand With Smitty” going to show their support.

Although it wasn’t adopted, he still received texts this week from people telling him the amendment should have been pushed through.

Whether his colleagues will learn to mute themselves remains to be seen.

“I have been jealous of some of the meals my friends have ordered,” Pignatelli quipped.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.