Mayor asks reps to consider e-attendance
STAMFORD — The Board of Representatives wants to know if they can phone it in – literally.
At Mayor David Martin‘s prodding, a board committee began research in December on electronic attendance at meetings of the city’s legislative boards and commissions.
There’s nothing in state law that says remote attendance can’t be done, and the state’s Freedom of Information Commission is in agreement — presuming a public board or commission does its business in a way that’s accessible to the public itself, it does not matter if it meets by phone, by video or in person.
Whether it should be done, though, is a matter of opinion, both in Stamford and around the state and country.
Some Stamford boards have been willing theoretically to use telecommunications so that experts can give advice or testimony or so board members can listen in, but it seems as though they have yet to vote remotely.
“I think we may have had a couple times when somebody called in and was on a conference call just to listen,” said Board of Finance Chairman John Louizos. “There’s no vote, it’s more for hearing the presentation before we vote on the budget.”
For example, if the board needed to hear from an expert on a certain subject who was located in Massachusetts a video presentation could avoid the time and expense for that person to come to Stamford, Louizos said.
“Certainly I’d look favorably upon that,” he said.
Land Use Bureau Chief Norman Cole said the boards for planning and zoning take a harder line.
“We do it the old-fashioned way,” he said.
The boards provide accommodations to people who have hearing problems or other impairments, and the public meetings are videotaped, but that’s it. “Beyond that, there’s no way that people can participate in meetings without physically being there,” Cole said.
When experts speak to the boards, they’re usually representing applicants who pay them to appear, so having them show up in person is neither an inconvenience or expense to the city, he said.
“It’s preferable to sit in the same room, get the vibes of your fellow board member, look them in the eye,” said Cole.
But he conceded that it was possible that changing ways of doing business and conducting government could change that.
The Board of Education is waiting for a cue from the city as to whether virtual meeting attendance might happen, spokeswoman Sharon Beadle said.
“We really come under the city when it comes to tech initiatives, so we are really waiting to see what happens with the meetings of the Board of Representatives,” Beadle said.
Health Commission administrative staff member Pamela Scott said that body had also begun looking into whether electronic attendance is feasible.
Other cities and states have looked into allowing it.
New Haven city law doesn’t have any provisions that allow for virtual voting or attendance, but none that prohibit it, either. That city has taken expert testimony from out of state electronically in the past, city officials said.
Bridgeport legislators have called in to committee meetings, according to spokesman Brett Broesder, but not to full board meetings, as far as he could immediately recall.
Around the country, some states forbid remote attendance outright, others allow it and some only have provisions that enforce electronic communications’ scrutiny under their respective freedom of information laws.
Connecticut FOI law makes reference to meetings of public entities, with a quorum, conducted via electronic equipment, and the statute does not forbid the practice.
“They don’t do it as a matter of course, but I think it helps some groups that have a quorum issue,” said Thomas Hennick, a public education officer for the FOI commission.
Hawaii and Idaho explicitly permitted public meetings by electronic communication, according to information compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Minnesota and New Hampshire also clearly allow remote meetings of public bodies.
Several other states make it clear in their laws that electronic correspondence — not just electronic meetings — are subject to their various sunshine laws, but do not necessarily encourage electronic meetings, according to RCFP’s data.
At least two states, Oklahoma and Virginia, forbade the practice.
Hennick said that, in Connecticut, there have not been any specific complaints about electronic attendance, although he has fielded some calls asking if the practice is allowed.
“I haven’t seen it as an avoidance behavior — I see it as a way for people to have their meetings come through,” said Hennick. “There are some towns that don’t like that, and set their rules that say you have to be there.”
Stamford’s research into whether and how to allow it is still in its early stages, said Elise Coleman, who-chairs the Legislative and Rules Committee.
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