By Alex Bridges
Newly elected Strasburg Councilman Seth Newman phoned in for his first meeting.
Town Council tested a new policy that allows members to participate in meetings from remote locations. Newman took part in the meeting via cell phone from Michigan after Town Council voted to let him participate.
Not everyone on council thought Newman should sit in by phone. Council voted 4-3 to let him participate. Councilmen John Hall Jr., Rich Orndorff Jr. and Councilwoman Jocelyn Vena voted against the motion. Vice Mayor Richard Redmon and Councilmen Donald Le Vine, Robert Baker and Scott Terndrup voted in favor. No reasons were given for the votes.
Newman participated via phone in the ceremonial swearing-in of new and re-elected members conducted by Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp. Newman also voted with council on several action items.
Council had voted 5-2 in favor of adopting the policy that now lets it decide by a majority vote whether or not one or more absent members can participate from a remote location via phone or other electronic means. Council's policy limits any one member's remote participation to twice in a calendar year or 25 percent of the panel's meetings.
The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this spring that allows public bodies to create their own policy on remote or electronic participation. Alan Gernhart, staff attorney for the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said Thursday that legislators revised the law after issues over the voting requirement arose in Leesburg. Legislators removed the voting requirement. Instead, the law requires public bodies to come up with written policies.
The voting requirement was seen as a possible political tool by which some elected leaders could keep absent members from voting on issues before the body. Media outlets reported early last fall that Leesburg Town Council voted in a meeting to let one member participate remotely. At a subsequent meeting, council voted against letting a different member participate.
The FOIA Council advised that elected leaders can approach the matter of remote participation in one of three ways: Require a vote as part of policy; designate a member to give approval; make that approval or disapproval automatic as long as this doesn't violate other parts of the state law.
"It sounds to me like this council chose to use a vote so they're kinda back to square one with that," Gernhart said.
The attorney acknowledged that the usual way public bodies take action is by voting. If voting on participation becomes a problem, Gernhart said public bodies can change their policy.
Whether or not council members could use its policy to influence voting in the future remains uncertain.
At the meeting, Mayor Tim Taylor told members of council and the audience that Newman wanted to participate but had to attend to a matter concerning property he owns in Michigan. Per the policy adopted, Newman had to contact the mayor on or before the day of the meeting and explain the reason for his absence. The mayor didn't get in contact with Newman until late Tuesday afternoon.
"So, again, we hate surprises but you know he really wanted to participate tonight," Taylor said.
Town Attorney Nathan Miller told council they must vote each time an absent member requests to participate remotely. At least five council members, including the mayor, must be physically present at the meeting to make a quorum before they can vote on whether or not to allow one or more members to participate remotely.
"The reason for this statute is to make sure that the individual members of the governing body are together collectively because that's what creates the give and take and discussion process that determines how you vote," Miller said. "So the legislature doesn't want the councils spread all over the United States trying to carry on business. That's why it's so restrictive."
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org