By Shawn Regan
HAVERHILL — City councilors will be allowed to participate and vote by phone at council meetings up to six times per year under a proposed ordinance drafted by the city solicitor.
The council is expected to enact the proposal at its Jan. 29 meeting, making Haverhill one of the first governmental bodies in Massachusetts to adopt a new state law allowing elected officials to participate and vote at meetings by telephone or video.
Communication infrastructure was recently installed in the council’s City Hall meeting room that will allow councilors to receive and transmit an audio signal via a speaker phone in the room.
The council agreed to allow telecommuting in December, primarily because Councilor John Michitson recently took a new position at his company that requires extensive travel to California and the Middle East. Any councilor would be allowed to do it, however.
Under the Attorney General’s rules for remote participation, elected officials are allowed to attend meetings remotely in instances where they cannot be present due to personal illness or injury, geographical distance, military service or an emergency.
City Solicitor William Cox’s draft says the proposal is subject to authorization by the mayor and that the mayor can also revoke it at any time by notifying the city clerk in writing.
Mayor James Fiorentini has already said he supports the idea.
“I wouldn’t want someone to miss all or most meetings because it’s important for elected officials to be there in person,” the mayor said in a prior interview. “For instance, there are things that take place at meetings that can’t happen by teleconference, such as talking to residents in the hallway. But if it’s used sparingly, I don’t have a problem with it and I’ll sign off on it if the council passes it.”
Michitson, the top vote-getter in the last council election, resigned the council presidency three months ago due to his new work schedule at MITRE Corporation, where he is an electrical engineer.
Other telecommuting rules include: A quorum of the body, including the chairman or the person running the meeting, must be physically present at the meeting location; members of a public body who participate remotely and all people at the meeting location must be clearly audible to each other; and all votes taken during a meeting in which a member participates remotely must be by roll call vote.
Any costs incurred by the city in allowing remote participation must be paid by the councilor who telecommutes. Remote participation may be by audio or video, including Webex or Skype. Councilors may amend Cox’s proposal before voting on it.
Councilors have said they will begin by allowing remote participation by phone, but might expand the program in the future to allow remote video conferencing.