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WAYLAND

Town allows long-distance votes as boost to participation

Absent officials can use phone link in some cases

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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Members of boards and committees in Wayland may now participate and vote in meetings even if they cannot attend in person.

The Board of Selectmen has authorized officials to participate via telephone or other remote connections under certain circumstances, such as if they are sick or away on business.

“We see it as a useful and convenient tool to encourage greater participation in town government,’’ said the board’s chairman, Tom Fay.

Starting Jan. 3, town officials can participate and vote by teleconference or audio-conference as long as all those in attendance, including the audience and the member participating remotely, can hear the proceedings.

Acceptable reasons for remote participation include personal illness, personal disability, emergency, military service, and geographic distance.

“Town volunteers live busy lives,’’ Fay said. “Whether due to travel, sickness, or some other reason, these volunteers are not always able to attend meetings.’’

The state attorney general’s office last month issued regulations that cover circumstances under which public officials can participate remotely in a discussion and vote on measures. The regulations require that the municipality first authorize the remote participation.

Under the state regulations, votes taken at meetings where a member participates remotely must be taken by roll call, and the remote participant cannot be counted toward the quorum making it an official session. Also, a remote participant may not chair a meeting.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said the purpose of the regulations is to promote greater participation while upholding the transparency intended in the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Officials said that while remote participation will be allowed in some cases, it should be used infrequently.

“While in certain extenuating circumstances members of the public bodies are permitted to participate remotely, we encourage physical attendance when at all possible,’’ Coakley said in a statement.

The attorney general’s office does not track communities that have authorized the remote participation, so it’s unclear how many other than Wayland have done so. Among area communities, Arlington’s selectmen voted unanimously last month to allow the practice.

Wayland will hold a brief training and question-and-answer session for local board and committee members on Dec. 12 at 6:15 p.m. in the selectmen’s meeting room.

Fay said the Jan. 3 starting date for the arrangement will give officials time to review the regulations, and allow the town to install speakers in meeting rooms that will make it easier to hear remote participants calling in.

Fay said the Board of Selectmen will monitor its use to make sure officials are not abusing the privilege. He said the board will examine the frequency of its use midway through the year, and reconsider its vote for authorizing the practice if necessary.

“In short, remote participation should be the exception and not the rule when it comes to doing the people’s business,’’ Fay said.

Town Administrator Fred Turkington said one key will be to ensure that all members and the audience can hear the remote participant. If not, it will not be allowed, he said.

“The litmus test is for the audience to hear as if the person was there in the room,’’ he said. “I fully expect it will be used pretty sparingly, but it’s an option.’’

Turkington said it’s likely that the remote participation would be used more among low-profile boards, rather than the selectmen and School Committee. He said those boards try to make a point to avoid scheduling important votes when members cannot be present.

Ira Montague, the Planning Board’s chairman, said much of his panel’s work involves reviewing plans and designs, so he doesn’t think remote participation is practical. However, he said, it’s good to have it as an option, even if a member just wants to listen in to stay up to speed.

Steven Allen, chairman of the Cable Advisory Committee, said his panel lost a valuable member who wasn’t able to attend many night meetings. Allen said he is hopeful that the new policy would allow him to rejoin.

But the committee’s former member, Joe Schwendt, said he doesn’t think he would qualify under the regulations.

Schwendt said he cares for his children while his wife works in the evenings, so it’s a family conflict, not an illness or geographic distance.

Schwendt said he’d like to participate more and wishes that government would adapt to 21st-century technology and embrace virtual meetings.

“I have a lot to offer the group, but the mandate of being there is an issue,’’ he said.

He said he’d like to see meetings go entirely virtual - a move he thinks would encourage even more participation because residents could watch the meetings online without leaving home.

“It’s a way we could go from just keeping up to more leading edge,’’ Schwendt said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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