As internet bandwidth gets better, we’re seeing more people communicate by videoconference. Facetime and Skype are now quite common ways for family members and friends to see each other when they are physically separated. Video conferencing has been around for a while in big multi-national corporations.
More slowly, we’re also seeing the adoption of videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies. There are various reasons for the slow adoption.
- Public agencies are unfortunately often populated by the less technically savvy part of the overall population or whose members are just more comfortable with physical than virtual face-to-face communication.
- Or their members may have had a bad experience with video conferencing a few years ago, when neither the software nor the bandwidth was sufficient to become invisible and not interfere with free-flowing conversation. (Of course, there are still examples of bad videoconferences even now. I mention video products I’ve used successfully below.)
- Public bodies are also subject to various open meeting laws and rules, which haven’t always caught up with changes in technology.
But things are changing, so I went on a search of the video conferencing practices of government bodies. Here’s some of what I found.
Since the latter part of last year, the City Council of Austin, Texas, has allowed the public to speak at their meetings via video so that citizens aren’t forced to come downtown for this opportunity.
A bigger step is virtual attendance at meetings of the members themselves.
This is important especially when distances are large or obtaining a quorum is hard to achieve. It may be unusual for a city council or a state legislature to fail to have a quorum, but there are tens of thousands of other public bodies who can’t get their business done because not enough members can show up. This affects school boards and libraries and water districts and state advisory boards, etc. (By the way, the problem isn’t new – the first session of the US Congress was delayed for some time while members arrived very slowly.)
Video conferencing that would enable members to participate remotely would seem to be a natural solution. But as in all other aspects of the public sector, things aren’t so simple and policies seem to be the first obstacle to overcome.
Over the last few years, the Wyoming’s State Legislature has developed its video policy, which still seems be somewhere in the middle between those without full confidence and those who want to use it. Approvals are needed for committee use of video, as the policy states: “With prior consent of the committee chair, a video conference may be held for legislators unable to attend a meeting at the official meeting location.” More generally, “An entire committee can meet via video conference at the direction of the chairman.”
Since 2013, the State of Missouri has allowed those elected to public bodies (mostly local) to vote and participate by video. But the Missouri Municipal League felt it necessary to a model policy for videoconferencing. It particularly emphasizes such guidance as: “a member’s use of video conference attendance should occur only sparingly.”
Following a change in the Illinois Open Meetings laws, the Schaumburg Library in 2009 adopted an official policy on this subject. They require a quorum of members at the physical meeting, not counting members participating via electronic means. Once that quorum is established, the remote participants have full rights although their votes are recorded as being remote. The policy also lists the acceptable reasons for wanting to participate remotely – employment, board business, illness, or family emergency.
In Texas, school boards also can use videoconferencing, but with somewhat similar requirements for a quorum. Whereas, public bodies in Pennsylvania can count remote participants as part of the quorum.
The State of Florida has empowered condo boards, which are a major form of local governance there, to use video. The State allows board members to be counted as present and vote remotely via video conferencing.
In New York State, which has some of the strictest open meeting laws, the State has allowed members to participate in meetings by video, but not phone conference calls. The idea is that, as in a traditional physical meeting, everyone has to be able to see all members’ reactions at all times.
In addition, New York State looks on video participation as a remote extension of the physical meeting, so public bodies using video must list all locations in its public notices – both the main physical meeting as well as any location where a member is using video. Presumably, someone in a hotel in, say, Florida or France, would have to allow any interested citizens to come into their room and also see what’s going on.
I’m on a number of public boards and they have different policies. Some boards are reluctant to use video at all. Another board has just had a completely virtual meeting that worked very well using Fuze and will be repeating this at least twice a year. I’ve also used Zoom successfully for meetings with large numbers of people.
Like most adoption of technology, transitions are not smooth and the old and the new exist together. In the streets of cities a hundred years ago, there were accidents between automobiles (then still relatively new) and horses pulling carriages.
Why should we expect video conferencing to be different?
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