The trouble with phoning it in

Imagine a time when COVID is in our rearview mirrors and we're back to what we will call normal. No doubt COVID will change a lot of our future behaviors. We may not do things exactly as we did them before.

But what does that mean for public meetings of your city or town council, board of supervisors or school board?

Do you expect them to meet together, in person? Together, where they have to look at each other in the eye? There, in the same room as members of the public, where each can see the reactions, read the body language and hear the words of the other? Visible to reporters as they vote on tough issues of the day?

Or do you expect them to call in, from their homes, offices, cars, jobs, hospitals, basketball games, vacations, business trips or wherever, anytime they want?

The proposal being considered seeks to change current rules that allow members of a public body to call in as many times as need be when they have a temporary or permanent disability, and up to two times per year for any reason at all for a "personal matter."

The change being offered would say you can also call in as many times as you like when you're caring for a sick loved one, and you can use the "personal matter" excuse for up to 10% of meetings. The effect is to more than double the total number of opportunities for someone to phone into a meeting instead of showing up in person.

What's more, there has been an organized letter-writing campaign urging the subcommittee to eliminate any cap whatsoever on how many times someone can call in on a "personal matter." That would mean a person could be elected or appointed to a board that serves the public without ever actually meeting in public.

Exaggeration? Perhaps. Plausible? Absolutely.

Now, I know what you a common refrain is, hey, life happens and sometimes you just can't get to the meeting. And you'd be right. That's what the current rules try to take into account.

But if "life happens" becomes the norm, we're looking at appointed and elected officials who may have too much going on to effectively participate as a government decision-maker. There are no aspersions being cast here. Each and every one of us, men and women alike, have had to make hard choices and sacrifices in our professional and personal lives based on our individual circumstances and the needs of our families and loved ones. Public service may have called many of us when the timing nonetheless made it impossible. COVID did not change that calculus.

There are logistical implications to consider, too, if the opportunities for calling in are expanded or made limitless. What if everyone wants to call in at the same time?

Current law requires a quorum to be physically present at a place where the public can attend. What if, on a 7-member board, four of them want to call in for a meeting one week? The next meeting, five of them do, and the next meeting two of them?

Not only would the stage be set for conflicts among board members over whose request takes priority, but with constantly shifting groups of members present, the public would be deprived of any real sense of the public body's performance as a whole.

We have to be honest: a call-in participant is never really, fully part of an in-person discussion. It is easy to forget the caller is even there. Calling in by video is an improvement, but it's still not unusual for those in physical proximity to one another to get caught up among themselves to the exclusion of anyone not present. The quality of the caller's participation is compromised, even if unintentionally so.

Finally, please don't confuse greater public observation of electronic meetings during COVID for better board performance year-round. The pandemic's electronic meetings have been an important part of keeping the public informed while we stay socially distant. There is zero analysis, however, assessing the quality of public decision-making by board members using electronic means.

-- Megan Rhyne


What do you think? 

Submit your thoughts to the FOIA Council, either in writing or by signing up to comment. Find the links on the FOIA Council's subcommittee page:


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