Town to set guidelines for electronic participation
At a Sept. 10 meeting, the Park and Recreation Commission voted 4-3 to recommend that Caffeine & Carburetors take place at Waveny Park as a one-time trial in October. The outcome, however, would have been different if the group had not rejected a negative vote from one of its members.
Commissioner Richard Kilbride tried to vote against the recommendation, but was prohibited from voting because he was participating by telephone.
Three weeks later, the commission had a special meeting to review its goals and discuss a potential policy for members to participate in a meeting via phone and whether one would be able to vote and count for a quorum.
Although the commission did not make a decision at Monday night's meeting, the discussion shows the increasing need for town groups to have a policy guiding such use of technology at their meetings. As Recreation Director Stephen Benko put it, this is "uncharted territory."
"It's a whole new world," he said. "There's no protocol."
The Town Council seems to be the only town governing 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.
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Three months later, the Rules of the Town Council were updated to prohibit telephone participation, with a few exceptions.
"In the event of an extreme emergency, security or public health event, and at the discretion of the chairman, a meeting allowing electronic participation may be called," the document states.
Williams said telephone participation sometimes is necessary.
"It should happen any time it needs to happen," he said. "All of us are volunteers and we all have other jobs and sometimes your professional and personal lives may call you out of town."
Kilbride, whose absence sparked the discussion at the Park and Recreation Commission, echoed Williams' statement.
"I hope that you all recognize that, as a volunteer in the town, that does take away from other responsibilities that we have," he said, noting that he chose to participate by phone on Sept. 10 "to show my commitment to this commission."
Chairman Sally Campbell said she would consult the town on the matter and report back to the commission.
"Right now, I believe it should be up to the individual committee," Mallozzi said, adding that the parameters would serve as a guide. "They have to have a quorum present in the room. What we don't want to see happening is people calling in at every meeting."
Mallozzi said the suggested guidelines likely wouldn't pertain to groups that have alternate members, such as the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Board of Finance, and the recently-established Audit Committee.
Relying on technology, however, may not always be ideal, according to at least two people who have experienced connection issues.
"I'll admit that there were things that happened at the meeting that I did not hear," Kilbride told the commission. "You certainly miss lots of things when you're on the phone."
In September, a member of Westport's Planning and Zoning Commission participated in a meeting via Skype while on a business trip overseas. In a letter to the editor at Westport News, David Lessing said he did not have the opportunity to fully explain his rationale at the meeting because of audio problems.
Gail Kelly, Wesport's assistant town attorney, said the town has allowed electronic participation, but "we do not encourage it."
Mallozzi phoned in at a Board of Selectmen on Jan. 30, when he was recovering from a medical procedure.
"I'm in favor," he said. "I personally believe that in this day and age it's very important (for) members to have this availability."
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