Last year, Paul Joseph was on a business trip more than 1,600 miles away when the Natick Board of Selectmen was scheduled to consider at a regular meeting an item close to his heart: accepting grant money for an economic study of the town.
Not long ago, Joseph would have had to skip the meeting. But a relatively new change to the state’s open meeting law allowed him to participate in the meeting from afar — by phone.
He studied digital versions of the documents presented to the board, and spoke as freely as if he was present physically at the meeting.
“I was seeing everything everyone in the meeting was seeing,” said Joseph, who is serving as the Natick board’s chairman this year. “I could hear everything clearly. Really, it was seamless.”
Natick was one of the first towns to take advantage of the change in state law that Attorney General Martha Coakley announced in November 2011. The change, if adopted by a community, allows members of boards and committees to participate in meetings even if they cannot be there physically.
Although Coakley encouraged members of public bodies to attend meetings in person whenever possible, she allowed that there were some circumstances where members would be unavailable.
There are five situations that allow committee members to participate in a meeting via a telephone or computer: personal illness, personal disability, emergency, military service, or geographic distance. The panel’s chairman is responsible for determining whether a member qualifies to attend a meeting remotely.
Arlington Board of Selectmen Chairman
There is no roster of which communities have voted to allow remote participation, according to Katie McCue, a legislative analyst for the Massachusetts Municipal Association. But towns and cities seem to be slow to adopt the provision.
McCue has heard of seven other towns and cities, besides Natick, that allow the practice, with the statewide list including Arlington, Franklin, Harvard, Wayland, and Weston.
Selectmen in Framingham considered the change, but some worried about difficulties with technology, said Charles Sisitsky, the board’s chairman .
“There was a lot of discussion about how it would be used and the impact on meetings and whether it would be abused,” Sisitsky said. “It puts a lot of pressure on people who run the meetings to have to worry about setting up the phones and getting the technology right and making sure everything works.”
Framingham’s selectmen particularly worried that some town committees wouldn’t have the equipment or time to wrestle with the technology to link in absent members.
In the end, Sisitsky said, the vote was unanimous not to allow remote participation.
But supporters of the new regulation hope that utilitizing remote-access technology will allow more people to participate in local government.
“Yes, it’s a substitute for being there in person,” said Natick Selectman Joshua Ostroff. “But sometimes, the best volunteers are the ones who have the most on their plate to begin with.”
Ostroff said Natick selectmen voted unanimously to allow members of all town boards and committees to attend meetings remotely. However, he said, there was some concern that members could abuse the provision, by staying home from meetings they could attend.
Last summer, Ostroff was vacationing with his family on Cape Cod when the Board of Selectmen called an emergency meeting to issue a permit for an event in town. Since Ostroff couldn’t make the meeting, but wanted to participate, the assembled board called him.
He voted, by phone, in favor of the permit.
“I am a big fan because there are times when a very dedicated volunteer simply cannot be in town,” Ostroff said. “Or they may be sick and need to participate remotely. Personal attendance at committee meetings is ideal, but if someone, for reasons out of their control, cannot attend a meeting, this is a way for them to make contributions and stay current.”
The law allows groups to use any technology that allows the person attending remotely to be “clearly audible” to all other participants. Text messaging, e-mail, and instant messaging do not meet that requirement.
Groups can decide whether they will use video technology — but if they do, the remote participant must also be clearly visible to everyone at the meeting.
And committees and boards must still reach their quorum with members who are physically present.
Arlington was another early adopter of remote access.
Kevin Greeley, chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen, said although he supports the regulation, he was disconcerted by participating in a meeting by phone.
“I found it very difficult, without pictures,” said Greeley, who has been on the board for 24 years.
“It’s kind of like listening to a remote lecture, without seeing people’s faces or reactions. I found it tough to really concentrate and pay attention. I made myself take notes,’’ he said.
“There’s nothing like being there.”