Policy set on meeting participation by absent board members via electronics
The Board of Selectmen voted last week to adopt a policy to guide electronic participation at meetings for appointed members of town bodies.
The policy states that commissions, committees, boards and other town panels that do not have alternate members should "preferably" hold their meetings in person "because in-person meetings provide a better environment for undistracted analysis and decision-making, the ability to read body language and facial expressions, and enhanced social interaction among members."
In instances where a commission member is not able to be physically present at a meeting, electronic participation will be allowed under certain conditions. They include: the board must agree, with a two-thirds majority, to allow such participation at its meetings; a quorum of members should be physically present at the meeting location; a member's physical attendance is not reasonably practical; the members' discussion is audible to the public at the meeting location; all members can clearly hear each other, and all required handout materials are available to all members.
First Selectman Robert Mallozzi said at the Dec. 16 meeting he is pleased the policy does not dictate what town panels must do, but rather sets a standard in case a board does decide to allow electronic participation.
"We thought it was fair that people have some parameters so they can make a decision on their own about how to conduct their individual meetings, especially those that do not have alternates," he said.
Appointed town bodies with alternate members, such as the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Finance, should not allow electronic participation, according to the policy. Their alternate members should be called on to participate rather than allowing absent members to participate via an electronic device.
Elected town bodies may set their own policy, as the Town Council has done.
"I think it's an improvement on the original draft," she said of the policy. "I, however, am still an old-fashioned person who thinks you should be there."
In the end, Jones voted in favor of the policy, but said she would likely vote against allowing electronic participation for selectmen's meetings. The three-member board is expected to vote on its own policy in January.
The need for a policy came after a controversial 4-3 vote at a Park and Recreation Commission meeting Sept. 10. During the discussion, Commissioner Richard Kilbride tried to vote against a recommendation to allow Caffeine & Carburetors to stage an event at Waveny Park, but his vote was rejected because he was participating by telephone.
The Town Council is the only town body with a ban on electronic communication, thanks to a tumultuous meeting in spring 2013. At that time, Councilman Roger Williams requested that arrangements be made so he could call in rather than miss the May 15, 2013, meeting, but the request was denied initially for fear of setting a precedent and he threatened legal action against the council. Three months later, the Rules of the Town Council were updated to prohibit telephone participation, with a few exceptions.
Robert's Rules of Order, a widely used guide to govern the conduct of meetings and conferences, defines and permits electronic attendance through Internet or telephone.
Both the Town Council and the Board of Selectmen policies agree that absent members should be allowed to participate using electronic communications regardless of the quorum during an emergency.
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