Should local councils, school boards and county supervisors be permitted to hold electronic meetings?
Electronic participation recognizes technologies relevance to government
By Mark K. Flynn
Flynn is general counsel for the Virginia Municipal League.
To remove any confusion, neither HB 2026 nor the existing state law allows a meeting to be held unless a quorum of the public body is in the room the entire time.
When the legislation was debated, no one argued that the current law, which already allows electronic participation in the case of an emergency, discouraged citizen involvement in government meetings. The new law simply adds a provision that allows a member of a public body to participate electronically if a “personal matter” arises, and that under limited circumstances I explained last week. Whether it’s an emergency or personal matter, to participate electronically, the law requires that
“(t)he public body make arrangements for the voice of the remote participant to be heard by all persons at the primary or central meeting location.”
Yes, it’s preferable to have face-to-face meetings and not just voices on a telephone line deciding the public’s business, but the law has safeguards against abusing the new privilege. Reader comments effectively captured the issues the General Assembly considered with HB 2026: “If you can’t do the time (make it to meetings) don’t do the crime (volunteer)” is valid. The legislature, however, sided with the reader who stated matter-of-factly that “remote meetings, teleconferences, etc., are standard everywhere.” Even Megan Rhyne’s own description of Skyping with her niece in Uruguay demonstrates how we readily adopt new technology. Most readers didn’t need an explanation of what Skype or FaceTime are. It’s how we roll.
HB 2026 doesn’t wipe out public interaction with boards, councils and commissions. It only takes us one small step toward recognizing that modern technology is relevant to government, just as it is to other aspects of our lives. I’m confident that electronic participation in public meetings will remain the exception and not the rule under the provisions of HB 2026.
The public meeting is a cornerstone of public service
By Megan Rhyne
Rhyne is executive director of Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
The world has changed a great deal since the “Leave It to Beaver” depiction of work and family life portrayed in the ’50s and ’60s. But that TV world never really existed in the first place.
Despite the show’s assumption that everyone lived and worked in the same small town, America’s economy, geography and economics have probably not been that static and homogenous since the Industrial Revolution.
Men — and more women since the days of The Beave — have been working night shifts or two jobs, in different towns, with different and frustrating commutes. They’ve always had family obligations, personal challenges and other commitments.
Our choices in one area of our lives impact other areas. For some, that impact is prohibitive. For others, they find a way to absorb it.
Those who seek public office are no different. They have always had to weigh these demands on their time against the responsibilities public office would add to them. Many a potential candidate has either passed up seeking office or has stepped down because the strain on his or her family was too great.
Every person who assumes office should assume that public service will take a significant amount of time and will include conducting the public’s business in public. The public meeting is a cornerstone of public service. E-meetings would undoubtedly be easier, but if expanded too far, the meetings stop being the public’s business.
Meeting in person is a part of the process. The advancement of technology doesn’t change that. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Public meetings. Under the sun. I like that.