Town Council majority against phoning it in
In the wake of the most contentious Town Council meeting of the year, members conducted a special meeting Monday night to discuss possible new rules, chief among them, participation by phone.
Council member Kit Devereaux, who announced her retirement amongst the tumult of the previous meeting, spoke in opposition to telecommunication at meetings.
"From my experience, it was not successful," she said. "Our first participation electronically was a distraction and it didn't really add to the meeting."
On May 10, councilman Roger Williams requested that arrangements be made so he could call in rather than miss the May 15 meeting, at which the mill rate for the 2013-14 fiscal year would be set. When this request was denied for fear of setting a precedent, Williams informed the council his attorney would file a petition for injunctive relief on the grounds that there was no statute that would preclude inclusion in a meeting in such a way, and that there was, in fact, some legal basis in favor of it.
Subsequent to Williams' announcement via email of his intentions, Town Attorney Ira Bloom, opined that Williams was correct, and Town Council Chairman Mark DeWaele made arrangements for Williams to communicate by phone.
The reaction to Williams' course of action by other council members was overwhelmingly negative. Devereaux said she was retiring because of the lack of collegiality on the council. Tucker Murphy said she felt she was "disrespected." Christine Hussey said Williams' legal moves were "the height of insult and very poor form."
The objective of Monday's meeting was to review all Town Council rules, and the members spent nearly an hour going over details, including punctuation in the text. DeWaele named Penny Young the new chairman of the Policies and Procedure Subcommittee. Young said the rules had not been changed since 2002, and it was time to revisit and revise them.
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It became apparent that the impetus of the meeting was mainly to discuss Williams' call-in.
"I can never remember an incidence where any chairman used the gavel and there was not silence," Hussey said, referencing a time Williams continued to talk over DeWaele, possibly because he could not hear the chairman asking him to stop. "People have spoken to me at the supermarket, at church, around town, and I can't even repeat some of the language to describe how we looked and what we sounded like. I think the idea is not a bad one, but right now does not serve any purpose. You do lose control. It was not our finest moment."
For his part, Williams said the call was a success, though left room for improvement.
"Being on the other end of the phone, I thought it was successful. The only time it wasn't was when I couldn't get the mute button off my phone," he said, adding that other town bodies have had members call into meetings, and that doing such could be necessary in the case of a severe weather event.
One issue several members brought up was the limitations the technology played in reading body language. Another was whether Williams paid full attention while on the line.
"Did you find it difficult to pay attention not being in the room?" Devereaux asked Williams at one point.
Williams responded that he did not have any problems paying attention.
"I have heard from people that you were on Facebook" during the meeting, Devereaux responded.
Williams' pushed back immediately.
"No, I wasn't, and I wasn't sleeping, as some people have claimed," he said.
Immediately, Murphy interjected that she had documentation of Williams' Facebook activity.
"I have a screenshot of you commenting on Facebook," she said, opening a manila folder, with the screen shot printed out in black and white.
Murphy rose and brought the photo over to Williams.
"I don't remember," he said, after inspecting the page, suggesting perhaps it was a different Roger Williams. "I was not on Facebook."
Devereaux did not push further, but let her unhappiness be known.
"If there was a posting on Facebook, I find that highly insulting," she concluded.
Getting back to the procedural issue, DeWaele offered that in the future, members should continue the old tradition of sending in a written statement if they had to miss a meeting but still wanted to make a point.
Steve Karl added that if he considered calling in to participate in a meeting to be OK, he did not think the person should vote, as Williams did.
"Under no circumstances should someone be able to vote who is not present in these chambers," Karl said.
Other members spoke up in the case of weather emergencies or pandemics, as Williams had offered. Bob Hamill said he thought video conferencing would work a lot better than the phone did.
"My takeaway is that the subcommittee should be looking into the possibility of emergency communication," Young said, adding that she would contact Bloom about the suggested revisions. "That the consensus of this council is that given the state of technology and the ability to purchase (telecommunication) is not appropriate at this time."
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