By Thomas P. Caldwell, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The committee established to study whether virtual meetings should be authorized is recommending that remote participation by board members should be allowed, with the question of public access to those meetings being left to local boards, according to a draft report that the panel will be taking up on Oct. 20.
“Since local boards control public access now, we think that should continue with only technical issues addressed by 91A [the so-called Right-To-Know law],” the draft report states.
In considering whether a physical meeting location should be required at all, when technology allows participation from home, “We unanimously agreed a physical location must remain required,” the report says.
“We believe citizens should always have a physical space where they can observe their public servants conducting their business and speak to those chosen authorities face-to-face. This thought was buttressed by the consideration that many citizens still remain disconnected from and/or uncomfortable with technology required to participate remotely,” the document says.
In discussing quorum requirements, the committee “heard many objections about the current requirement of a quorum of the body as a threshold” to conduct business. While “quorum” is not defined in the law, it generally means 50 percent of the membership plus one, or some other majority figure.
“We recommend that the ‘Quorum’ requirement be defined to include some minimal real number of people present at the physical location and some additional remote attendance, perhaps relative to the size of the body,” the draft report states. “We also think there should be some recognition of ‘quorums’ defined by the body itself.”
Remote participation by board members “should be allowed under non-emergency situations with restraint,” the report states, going on to say that exceptions using the “not reasonably practical” standard should document the reason in the meeting minutes.
The other consideration for board members participating remotely is whether they should be seen as well as heard on a remote link. “Insufficient broadband capability in many areas inhibits us from recommending a requirement for both voice and visual participation simultaneously,” the document states.
The committee also is recommending that people who are physically present be given priority over those participating remotely.
The draft concludes, “We strongly encourage all bodies to allow the greatest possible public access.”
Committee members — Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, Rep. Jordan Ulery, R-Hudson, Rep. Kurt Wuelper, R-Strafford, and Rep. Bob Greene, R-Hillsborough, — will take up that draft report on Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 10:30 a.m. in State House Room 100. The committee is required to submit its final report by Nov. 1 in order for the Legislature to have a chance to draft a bill for the next session.