EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 5, 2012

Attend council meetings by video?

Public debate sought on telecommuting proposal

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — City Council will hear from the public before deciding whether to let councilors attend government meetings remotely by telephone or video conferencing.

The council is considering the telecommuting measure because councilor John Michitson recently took a new position at his company that requires extensive travel to California and the Middle East. It would apply to all councilors, however.

If passed, Haverhill would become one first governmental bodies in Massachusetts to adopt a new state law allowing elected officials to participate and vote at meetings by telephone or video. Rules for implementing the law were recently developed by the Attorney General’s Office.

Under those rules, 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.

“This is an opportunity to move Haverhill forward and into the 21st Century,” said Councilor William Macek, who proposed the measure. “In a structured format of necessity it would allow a councilor to participate when they can’t be here in person. This is proven technology that is used all over the world.”

Councilor Michael McGonagle was the only councilor to voice apprehension, but he said he would likely support the proposal in the end.

“I’m not totally against it,” McGonagle said. “But I’ve heard from some people that feel if a city councilor can’t make it to meetings, maybe they should do something else.”

Councilors agreed they will ask City Solicitor William Cox to draft a proposal that they will send to a study committee for debate and changes.

A public hearing will be held before the measure is sent back to the full committee for a vote.

Mayor James Fiorentini has 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.”

Councilors said they will set a maximum number of meetings a councilor would be allowed to participate remotely in a given year. Several said they prefer no more than six times.

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 several meetings since taking his new position.

“This isn’t just about me,” Michitson said last night. “I’m in a difficult situation and I’m trying to make the best out of it. ...The bottom line is we all need to be convinced this is good for the community.”

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.