By Thomas P. Caldwell, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The committee established to review how municipal bodies might conduct virtual meetings has arrived at a consensus on how such meetings might occur, and is preparing draft recommendations to review at its next meeting, on Oct. 20.
Meeting in the State House Wednesday morning, the two senators and three representatives agreed that municipalities and school districts should be authorized to provide virtual access to their meetings if they are able to do so, but the committee was not in total agreement on what to recommend for legislative action, particularly as it applied to how a quorum should be determined.
Rep. Jordan Ulery, R-Hudson, was adamant about requiring public officials serving on municipal boards to be physically present at meetings in order for them to be counted as part of a quorum, the minimum number of board members necessary to conduct business. Board members joining the meeting remotely should not count toward quorum requirements, he said.
Other committee members disagreed, saying that, although there should be a minimum number of board members physically present at the meeting place — perhaps two — those who are able to participate remotely should count toward achieving the quorum.
Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said it is important to establish a minimum number that should be physically present in a meeting room, but individual boards should be able to set their own requirements as long as they meet that minimum. Larger boards might want to require higher numbers of members to be present.
Committee Chair Kurt Wuelper, R-Strafford, said they might want to suggest what percentage of the quorum would need to be present, noting that some boards are quite large. He suggested using 60 percent of the normal quorum number.
Ulery favored using the term “plurality” rather than setting a specific percentage.
Wuelper noted that they are not proposing specific legislation, only making recommendations for the Legislature to consider. He had the committee break down the individual decisions they had to make in formulating their recommendation, focusing first on the issue of what constitutes a quorum, then moving on to such issues as whether remote participants needed to be visible. A board member might call in to the meeting, but not be visible to those watching.
Some committee members favored recommending that the person be visible “if possible,” recognizing that it might not always be technically possible. Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, favored leaving it up to the individual boards to make that decision.
Mark Brownell, who was in the audience to address any technical questions regarding Microsoft’s meeting platform, suggested that some form of identity verification might be required of members joining a meeting remotely.
Ulery raised the question of whether hackers or other third parties might take advantage of people who sign in remotely, perhaps harvesting user information. Brownell assured him that the meeting protocols within remote applications effectively sequester individual users.
Among the committee’s proposed recommendations is that members of the public should be provided access to the meeting if possible — not necessarily to participate, but to watch the meeting. In cases where the public can participate, Birdsell preferred allowing those who are there in person to speak before allowing remote viewers to speak.
Wuelper then posed the questions: “What if they can’t provide public access?” “What if the cable goes down?”
The committee felt that there should be public access if the technology exists in that community, and that, if the transmission signal goes down, the meeting should be rescheduled to allow the greatest number of people to view the meeting.
They also said that meeting notices should include information on the availability of remote access and how to join remotely.
Wuelper was to pull together the recommendations into a draft form to discuss at their next meeting. That meeting was scheduled for Oct. 18, but Rep. Bob Greene, R-Hillsborough, said he cannot attend that day, so the group rescheduled it to Oct. 20.