A press advocate said it would be bad for open government if Charleston City Council adopts a formal policy allowing members to take part in meetings by telephone or other electronic device.
“There is a saying about ‘phoning it in,’ ” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.
Council is considering a phone participation policy after three members opted against attending a recent Real Estate Committee meeting where there was only one item on the agenda. They took part by conference call.
While telephone attendance by a public official is allowed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Rogers said expanding the habit would be a step toward a more closed form of government which reduces the public’s view and exposure of elected officials at work.
Last month, when not enough council members said they were going to attend the meeting to make a quorum, the city’s legal staff determined it would be OK for the three to participate by telephone.
The three included Bill Moody, Keith Waring and Gary White. Committee chairman Aubry Alexander was there, as was city staff.
The state FOIA law does allow for electronic participation of members of a public body, as long as the meeting and agenda are advertised ahead of time, minutes are kept and the site is open to the public, which it was.
But now that the precedent of “electronic” attendance has been set, some council members say it’s time for the city to look at adopting rules which address the practice as a matter of policy.
Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said that while remote phone call meetings are not something he’d like to see used often, the city should at least explore parameters of when electronic attendance is allowed.
In the recent city case, there was only one item on the agenda and it had to do with a residential annexation, an issue that normally is addressed in a matter of minutes, Alexander said.
Opponents like Rogers, however, said that when the law was crafted, it was meant to be used mainly for extreme circumstances, such as when one member of a body was too far away to attend or travel, or had been called out of town.
“It wasn’t to replace regular meetings,” he said.
Gregorie, who was recently named the city’s Mayor Pro Tem, has asked the city’s legal staff to look into the use of phone attendance as part of council rules.
Moody said the call option was done this time as a matter of convenience and that he isn’t necessarily in favor of it becoming routine.