The new rule for missing Charleston City Council meetings? Your elected officials can “phone it in” if they need to.
In recognition of today’s increasingly hectic pace, council this week adopted a set of procedures allowing members to participate in meetings from off-site via telephone conference call.
Among the allowable examples: Unexpectedly called out of town? Council members can call in. Kept home by an illness? Same thing.
A family emergency, work duty or a setback beyond a council member’s control? Pull out a cellphone.
While the practice is legal under the state’s open meetings law, known as the Freedom of Information Act, one advocate of sunshine in government said Charleston has gone too far.
“I just think it’s a poor excuse for a public meeting, to do it by telephone,”
said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. “The public is being short-changed.”
Mayor Joe Riley, however, said he didn’t think the public’s business would suffer as a result, adding that he expects the permission won’t become routine.
“I don’t think there’s any leeway for abuse on this,” he said.
The notion to adopt conference-call attendance stems from the fact that some of the council’s committee meetings, such as the one covering city real estate matters or public works, often have agendas of just a few items.
For some council members, however, attending these sessions means travel time and interruptions in their day to be at City Hall. That’s why some council members began floating alternatives. Hence, the conference call idea.
The phone-in allowance would cover the smaller committee meetings and council’s regular full sessions.
Among the committee meeting guidelines: Participants must give one day’s notice of when conferencing is needed; a committee chairperson or their designee still must be physically present at the meeting site; and the public and press still must be allowed to attend.
Also, there cannot be any communication between members attending by telephone and any other members of a committee that isn’t heard by all those in the room.
“I don’t think that the public loses anything in the sense it’s public, it’s a meeting and it’s chaired,” Riley said of the plan.
Rules there include that a quorum of council members still must be physically present, and those calling would have to notify the mayor as much as possible in advance to request approval to participate by phone. The whole plan will be in place for a one-year test period.
Though council unanimously endorsed the idea, some members did say they anticipated there would be something lost to anyone who participates by phone. For instance, there is always idea-sharing, banter and public comment that can occur during breaks in any meeting, they said, which someone who is in a remote location might not pick up on.
“That’s what gives me pause,” said Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who suggested the one-year test period.
Partially because of logistics, the public and press will not be allowed to dial in and listen to the council phone conversation, but can be in the meeting rooms to hear what transpires.
South Carolina’s FOIA law says electronic participation by members of a public body can be done as long as the meeting and agenda are advertised ahead of time, minutes are kept and the site is open to the public.
Riley said the idea is not that great a stretch from what occurs now at city meetings. Phone participation still has all the benefits of a regular meeting, he said, “except seeing the person.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551