Should elected officials be allowed to phone in to public meetings?

Allowing the members of a public body to attend its public meetings by phone is a practice increasingly mired in controversy. Should it be legal in other than emergency or special circumstances? Certainly, members of the public can’t do it — i.e., a town resident who monitors a public meeting remotely via open phone line would most likely not be recognized by the public body if that resident wished to comment at the meeting. Another person who is physically present would need to speak on behalf of the resident on the phone.

The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) offered some guidance on this issue in an article last updated in July 2016. Citing conflicting court decisions and an inconclusive April 12, 2000 opinion letter from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, the “NJSBA has taken the position that a board wishing to use speakerphone or videoconferencing for off-site board of education members, should, after consultation with its board attorney, establish a policy by which such participation could occur.” Thus, at least for school boards, it appears the practice of phoning in to meetings has not been specifically disallowed.

There are valid criticisms about allowing officials to call in to public meetings of the body on which they sit, and there is certainly ample room for abuse. For starters, how do we verify who’s on the phone? Is that person able to hear the proceedings and fully participate? Audibility is a common problem. Public attendees typically have difficulty communicating with a public official who is calling in. Is that fair when constituents have just one or two public meetings a month at which to connect with their representatives? Showing up for a public body’s meetings would seem to be a minimum commitment taken on by persons who choose to serve on that public body, and local officials should have little difficulty getting to meeting locations in the town where they live (barring occasional exceptions and special circumstances).

Hyper-local news site recently published a story concerning excessive “phoning in” by a Belleville Township Councilman who reportedly moved out of town and has repeatedly attended Council meetings by phone or has been absent.  (See the update on this story at the bottom of this post.)

The story raises other significant questions beyond whether phoning in should be allowed. For example, is the Councilman still eligible to serve and, if not, when did that eligibility end? Is repeated absence from Council meetings grounds for forfeiture of elected office or else grounds for removal? And why did the administration remain quiet about the reason for the lack of in-person attendance?

Essex Watch does a good job exploring the issues. At a minimum, the story demonstrates why the question of what constitutes meeting attendance needs to be carefully considered and why legislative reform may be in order.



UPDATE (9/27/2017):

News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane reports the resignation of Belleville Councilman Joe Longo, who allegedly moved to Florida months ago. Though previously denying it, Longo finally resigned this week and admitted to having moved, though he did not say when. The remainder of the Council took no steps to remove him and even passed an ordinance allowing him to phone in to meetings, which suggests they knew his circumstances. Walt Kane points out that the Council’s actions may have been self-serving for several key reasons. A hat tip to hyper-local for its public advocacy on this issue.

News 12 New Jersey
Kane in Your Corner: Belleville councilman remained on council after seemingly leaving NJ
(article and video segment)
Sept. 27, 2017