Thursday, November 10, 2011

AG OKs Remote Participation in Public Meetings

Members of government boards and commissions in Massachusetts will now be able to participate in meetings remotely, using audio or video conferencing, under open-meeting regulations approved today by Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The regulations, 940 CMR 29.10, were announced today and take effect tomorrow, Nov. 11.

Before any committee member can take advantage of the new regulations, the procedure must be adopted by the applicable government body. For local cities and towns, the mayor or board of selectmen must OK remote participation before any local board can use it. State boards can adopt the procedure by majority vote.

The regulations set out three requirements for remote participation:
  1. Members who participate remotely and all persons present at the meeting location must be clearly audible to each other.
  2. A quorum of the body, including the chair or, in the chair’s absence, the person authorized to chair the meeting, must be physically present at the meeting location.
  3. Members who participate remotely may vote and are not considered absent.
Under the regulations, remote participation will be allowed only when a member's physical presence at the meeting is "unreasonably difficult" due to one of five reasons:
  • Personal illness.
  • Personal disability.
  • Emergency.
  • Military service.
  • Geographic distance.
Once remote participation is approved for a meeting, then the regulations require that the following procedures be followed:
  • The member who wishes to participate remotely must, as soon as reasonably possible prior to a meeting, notify the chair of his or her desire to do so and the reason.
  • At the start of the meeting, the chair must announce the name of any member who is participating remotely and the reason. The information is also to be recorded in the meeting minutes.
  • All votes taken during the meeting must be by roll call.
  • The remote member may participate in an executive session, but must state at the start of any such session that no other person is present or able to hear the discussion at the remote location (unless the board votes to approve the person's presence).
  • When feasible, the chair should distribute to remote participants, in advance of the meeting, copies of any documents or exhibits likely to be used during the meeting.
Changes to the open meeting law that took effect on July 1, 2010, gave the AG exclusive authority for the law's enforcement. Those changes gave the AG the discretion to authorize remote participation, provided absent members and all persons present at the meeting are clearly audible to each other and that a quorum is present at the meeting location.

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