In emergencies, officials with disabilities can meet electronically
Local officials now can just phone it in
© July 1, 2007
Starting today, emergencies or serious illnesses won't necessarily force members of regional or local boards to miss a vote.
A change to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act has kicked in that allows members of those boards, under certain circumstances, to participate in meetings over the phone.
Until now, phoning in for a meeting was a privilege only for state-level board members because of the distances they typically must travel.
Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, sponsored Senate Bill 1001, which affords local boards the same privilege.
The discussion about changing the law has been going on for several years because of the difficulties disabled board members face in getting to meetings, said Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that helps resolve disputes over f reedom of i nformation issues.
"The bill recognizes that there are occasions when something happens the day of the meeting," she said.
In case of emergency, illness or if a member lives more than 60 miles from the meeting site, he or she can call and ask to participate by phone.
In an emergency, a board member must explain the emergency so it can be recorded in the meeting minutes. Fellow members must then vote on whether to allow their remote attendance.
Each year, a member can use the emergency provision twice, or for 25 percent of the meetings, whichever is less.
According to the law, the board, through its vote, can deny the request, making participating while on vacation unlikely.
It is meant to be used in serious emergencies, according to Ginger Stanley, the executive director of the Virginia Press Association, which represents newspaper interests in the General Assembly through lobbying efforts.
The law does not give specific time notification requirements.
When the reason is medical, the board has to record the reason and the location the person is calling from. No vote or proof of illness is required.
A third provision allows someone whose primary residence is more than 60 miles from the meeting site to call in on the day of the meeting and request to participate by phone.
Fellow members have to vote them into the meeting, and their location has to be recorded in the minutes. Again, the board can deny the request.
If the board doesn't have a quorum at the primary meeting site or if the voice of the person calling in can't be heard by everyone at the meeting, participating by phone isn't an option.
"I'd welcome the opportunity to have it available to us," said James E. Perkinson, Suffolk Public Schools' School Board vice chairman, whose board has been minus one board member since November because of illness.
Hearing what every member has to say on an issue, even if they can't physically attend, is important, he said.
Arthur L. Collins, executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission - which draws in 45 members from 16 cities and counties - doesn't foresee using the new law.
"I just think that communication is more effective face to face," Collins said. "In many board meetings, information is presented visually, such as in PowerPoint, and if people can't see what is being presented visually, their ability to understand what is being discussed is diminished."
Stanley said the changes are the result of two years of studies and legal wrangling.
Three other bills relating to electronic participation, some that push to give board members greater freedom to participate through electronic means, are still in the works.
"It's a very contentious subject," said Stanley. "It was negotiated long and hard. I think it's going to be watched very closely."
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