Should local councils, school boards and county supervisors be permitted to hold electronic meetings?
Electronic meetings will allow for broader participation
By Mark K. Flynn
Flynn is general counsel for the Virginia Municipal League.
The General Assembly took a sensible step this session when it changed the law to allow members of a public body to participate in meetings electronically.
HB 2026 recognizes modern-day realities. It’s not uncommon for a public official to travel out of town or even out of the country for work. Inexpensive technology exists today that allows a person to participate in a meeting thousands of miles away. The new law offers a common-sense way for citizens to participate in their community’s government and hold down a job that might routinely require travel. In short, it recognizes that the world in which we live has changed dramatically.
In the “Leave it to Beaver” TV show of the 1950s and 1960s, the Beaver’s dad, Ward Cleaver, his teacher, Miss Landers, and everyone else lived and worked in the town of Mayfield. Fast forward to today. A planning commission member works on international business matters that regularly take her abroad. A library board member works in the Library of Congress in Washington and faces a brutal daily commute. Both want to give back to their communities by serving on a board or commission. New technologies such as Skype, Internet conferencing and smart phones make participation by such people possible.
Before unanimous passage of HB 2026 by the General Assembly, those technologies didn’t help. That’s because the Virginia Freedom of Information Act allowed a member of a public body to participate in a meeting electronically only in emergencies. Because “emergency” is not defined in the act, public bodies were reluctant to allow members to participate electronically. Is being caught in traffic an emergency? Is a business trip to Mumbai an emergency? To resolve this dilemma, HB 2026 allows a member of a public body to participate in a meeting electronically for a personal matter, not just in an emergency. Because the term “personal matter” is inherently broad, defining it will not be an issue.
The code section amended by the bill contains safeguards to limit possible abuses: The official must identify the personal matter; the rest of the public body must agree to the remote participation; the member may only participate electronically the lesser of two times a year or 25 percent of the annual meetings; and a quorum must be maintained in the meeting room.
Thanks to modern technology, everyone involved, including the public, will hear or see all of the proceedings. The new law should prove a useful tool in helping more citizens serve their communities in our modern world.
Local government bodies are not hampered by distance
By Megan Rhyne
Rhyne is executive director of Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
I Skyped with my niece yesterday. She was on vacation in Uruguay. Tomorrow, I have a conference call with people from Missouri, Louisiana and California. On my way to D.C. last week on the train, I used “FaceTime” on my iPhone to say good night to my son back home.
Technology is amazing. But do I think local governments should be using that technology to conduct their meetings? No.
Representative government is best served when public officials meet in person in regularly scheduled public meetings. The quality of a face-to-face meeting is richer than when tinny voices crackle through the telephone or when isolated heads float on video screens. Interaction is more authentic, conversations more fluid, body language more articulate when people are in the same place at the same time.
Members of a public body are reading each others’ cues. The public is reading those cues, too. The public is also seeing who is paying attention, who rolls his eyes, who is taking notes and who is whispering to whom.
The in-person public meeting serves another important function: It requires government to face its public.
Public body members see who shows up to speak in favor of or against proposals. And by gathering together in one place, the public can identify potential allies or opponents, too.
Modern meeting technology is most useful when it brings together people from far-flung places. But local government public bodies are by their very definition local. They are not hampered by distance to the same extent as even state public bodies, which may have members in Accomack and Abingdon.
Many in local government insist that long commutes, family obligations and business trips make in-person meetings inconvenient. Current law recognizes that life sometimes gets in the way of public service. Individuals can participate electronically under certain, limited circumstances. But in-person meetings of the whole body — a tradition that has evolved from our republic’s earliest days — should not be sacrificed for the sake of convenience.
Public service is a difficult mantle to bear. Those elected or appointed to a local governing body should be commended for their willingness to serve. No doubt technology would make service easier. Its use in place of in-person meetings, however, would attenuate the members themselves and the bodies as a whole from the very public they serve. And then it would no longer be public service.