hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

January 10, 2013

City Council wired for long-distance votes

City Hall meeting room set up for remote participation by phone, eventually video

By Shawn Regan
Staff Writer

---- — City councilors who are hundreds of miles away expect to soon be debating and voting at City Hall meetings on their cell phones.

Councilor William Macek said communication infrastructure has been installed in the council’s City Hall meeting room that will allow all councilors to receive and transmit a “loud and clear” audio signal via a speaker phone in the meeting room.

“The speaker phone has been tied in to our microphone with the help of Haverhill Community Television,” Macek said of the public access TV organization which televises council meetings.

Macek said all that remains is for City Solicitor William Cox to draft an ordinance that complies with municipal telecommuting rules established by the Attorney General’s Office, and for the council to approve the language. That is expected to happen within the next two months.

The council agreed to allow telecommuting in December, primarily because Councilor John Michitson recently took a new position at his company that requires extensive travel to California and the Middle East. The telecommunicating would apply to all councilors, however.

Once the council passes its local rules, Haverhill will become one of the first governmental bodies in Massachusetts to adopt a new state law allowing elected officials to participate and vote at meetings by telephone or video.

Under the Attorney General’s rules, elected officials are allowed to attend meetings remotely in instances where they cannot be present due to personal illness or injury, geographical distance, military service or an emergency.

“This is an opportunity to move Haverhill forward and into the 21st Century,” Macek said when the council approved the concept in December. “In a structured format of necessity, it would allow a councilor to participate when they can’t be here in person. This is proven technology that is used all over the world.”

Mayor James Fiorentini has said he supports the idea.

“I wouldn’t want someone to miss all or most meetings because it’s important for elected officials to be there in person,” the mayor said in a prior interview. “For instance, there are things that take place at meetings that can’t happen by teleconference, such as talking to residents in the hallway. But if it’s used sparingly, I don’t have a problem with it and I’ll sign off on it if the council passes it.”

Councilors said they will set a maximum number of meetings a councilor will be allowed to participate in remotely in a given year. Several have said they prefer no more than six times.

Michitson, the top vote-getter in the last council election, resigned the council presidency two months ago due to his new work schedule at MITRE Corporation, where he is an electrical engineer.

Other telecommuting rules include: A quorum of the body, including the chairman or the person running the meeting, must be physically present at the meeting location; members of a public body who participate remotely and all people at the meeting location must be clearly audible to each other; and all votes taken during a meeting in which a member participates remotely must be by roll call vote.

Any costs incurred by the city in allowing remote participation must be paid by the councilor who telecommutes. Remote participation may be by audio or video, including Webex or Skype.

Councilors have said they will begin by allowing remote participation by phone, but might expand the program in the future to allow remote video conferencing.