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Mass. communities test new remote participation provision in Open Meeting Law

By Richard Lodge, editor, MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, Mass.

Almost a year after a change to the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law allowing remote meeting participation by city or town officials – under special circumstances – fewer than a dozen Bay State communities have adopted the idea.

In MetroWest, Franklin, Natick, Southborough, Wayland and the Mendon-Upton Regional School District have approved the idea of board or committee members who might be traveling, or otherwise unable to make a meeting, taking part by phone or via Skype.

MetroWest Daily News reporter Brian Benson wrote recently about the remote participation idea, citing Franklin Town Councilor Thomas Mercer as one big proponent.

Last spring, Mercer was in China on a business trip, when he joined the discussions at a Franklin Town Council meeting via a Skype connection.

“It was unbelievable,” Mercer told Benson. “It was like I was sitting in the room. I could hear the audience speak and could hear everything.”

The idea isn’t without detractors, though. Hudson selectmen this week (Sept. 24) heard from chairmen from the town Finance Committee, Planning Board, Economic Development Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, who all spoke against remote participation in meetings.

FinCom Chairman John Parent cited concern over having to buy new technology to allow remote participation and problems that could arise if the audience couldn’t hear the board member on the speaker phone or computer connection and vise versa.

“I see absolutely zero benefit in approving this,” Parent told Hudson selectmen.

As the regulation is written, remote participation is allowed when physical attendance at a public meeting is unreasonable because of personal illness, disability, emergency, military service or geographic distance (such as Mercer’s business trip to China).

In addition, the regulation requires remote participation to be approved by a community’s chief executive, typically a board of selectmen or mayor. It also requires a quorum of a board be physically present and allows either teleconferencing or videoconferencing.

One booster of the remote participation option is Natick Selectman Josh Ostroff, president of the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association.

“Anything we can do to encourage citizen involvement is good for our communities. …It should not be the norm, but government needs to recognize the busy lives of volunteers by occasionally participating remotely,” Ostroff told the Daily News.

Contact: rlodge@wickedlocal.com; on Twitter: RichardKLodge

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