By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — City Councilor John Michitson isn’t sure how many council meetings he can attend next year, now that he has taken a new role at his company that requires extensive travel to California and the Middle East.
But he still might be able to have perfect attendance if the council becomes 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 conferencing.
The law and rules to implement it were developed by the Attorney General’s Office. The law allows remote participation, or telecommuting, by members of governmental boards if there is “a strong and dependable audio or video signal and a quorum of members is physically present,” City Solicitor William Cox said.
Councilor William Macek said he intends to propose the law be adopted at the council’s Dec. 4 meeting. Mayor James Fiorentini said he will go along with the council’s preference on the matter.
Cox said the attorney general’s rules for telecommuting require the mayor to authorize it before it can be used. Fiorentini said he was initially against the concept, but has changed his mind.
“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. “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.”
Fiorentini said some councilors have expressed concerns about the proposal to him privately, but that he doesn’t know if they will make those concerns public. He declined to elaborate.
“It’s innovative, so doing it would put Haverhill at the forefront technologically and show we’re an up-and-coming city,” the mayor said. “I wouldn’t want someone vacationing in Florida and using this, but the alternative is not being there (the meeting). So if it’s not abused, this could be a good alternative in some instances.”
Michitson, the top vote-getter in the last council election, resigned the council presidency last month due to his new work schedule at MITRE Corporation, where he is an electrical engineer. He has missed two council meetings since and three in the last two months.
In a interview for this story, Michitson said he hopes not to miss many more meetings, but that his travel schedule is uncertain.
“My immediate intention is to participate in City Council meetings next year during increased business travel,” Michitson said. “But of course I am interested in telecommuting because I prefer to be at every meeting one way or another.”
If passed, Michitson noted telecommuting would be an option for every councilor, not just himself. It also could potentially be used by Haverhill’s other governmental boards, such as the School Committee, he said.
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.
In approving the measure, the council can set the maximum number of times a councilor can telecommute per year. Any costs incurred by the city in allowing remote participation must be paid by the councilor who telecommutes, according to the rules. Remote participation may be by audio or video, including Webex or Skype.