The next new thing: Virtual board meetings?

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | The idea of attending town meetings remotely is making the rounds at town Hall.

As lines are being blurred between what’s reality and virtual reality, how long will it be before town officials can “attend” meetings without being physically present? And when will the public be able to “attend” meetings in their pajamas, staring at screens, weighing in on the proceedings?

That time might be now.

Police Chief Jim Read, who is in charge of an ad hoc, unofficial town group on technology, is investigating the efficacy of allowing members of town committees to participate in meetings via technology when they’re unable to be in the room at Town Hall.

The initial request came from Marc Wein, who serves on the Waterways Management Advisory Council and has recently been tapped to join the Deer and Tick Committee. The idea was also broached Monday by Michael Coles and Art Williams, members of the Community Preservation Advisory Board, before a meeting of the CPFAB at Town Hall. Mr. Wein raised the issue at two meetings and then discussed it with Chief Read and Supervisor Jim Dougherty. Both men agreed it was worth investigating ways to use the latest technology to make meetings more accessible.

The Committee on Open Government, part of New York’s Department of State, worked with the legislature to develop regulations for use of developing technologies back in the 1990s, according to executive director Robert Freeman. A member connecting via telephone can’t vote or be counted as part of a quorum, but those participating via a video conference system can be, Mr. Freeman said. A meeting at which a member or members participate via a video conference must be advertised in advance with information on where those on video are participating. Plus, the public is free to go to any location a committee member is video conferencing from,  Mr. Freeman said.  There’s nothing in the law that requires that the public be able to tap into a meeting via a streamed video conference system, Mr. Freeman said.

But Town Attorney Laury Dowd, in a conversation with Mr. Coles and Mr. Williams, said Monday that it was certainly possible that the public, watching live-streamed public meetings via the Internet, could weigh in on issues remotely when public comment is requested.

Until now, when a town committee member has been unable to attend, a telephone connection has been used, but that has a number of limitations, Mr. Wein said. It’s difficult to hear everything that’s being said; very hard to determine who is speaking; and frustrating at times to get a word in because no one in the room is aware you’re trying to speak.

Councilman Peter Reich, who has participated in Town Board meetings and Waterways Management Advisory Council meetings using the speakerphone, Skype and FaceTime, said that while town officials are investigating various methods of communication for committee members, he doesn’t favor remote attendance as a routine practice.

“I think its use should be for things like a consultant or our labor counsel calling in,” Mr. Reich said. “It should not become the norm for a Town Board or committee member, but used in exceptional circumstances like a one-time away from the Island or severe illness.”

It has been Town Board practice to question candidates for committee posts about their ability to attend meetings in person, even during the winter when many leave the Island, Mr. Reich said. “If someone goes to Florida for the winter and would miss four monthly meetings, we would not appoint them,” he added. But there are committee members who are off-Island for several winter months, yet continue to serve.

The councilman also pointed out that a committee member participating by video conferencing wouldn’t have the same experience as someone in the room when it comes to a Zoning Board of Appeal presentation from an architect, for example. “I do feel an applicant should have the opportunity to look the board member voting on his application in the eyes, much the same way the accused have the right to face their accuser,” Mr. Reich said. “A Town Board member on the other side of the planet could not pick up all the details that the other Town Board members could while hovering over plans on the table for a wetland application,” Mr. Reich said.

Former Oysterponds Board of Education president Walter Strohmeyer used Skype on one occasion to participate in a meeting where his vote was needed. “It was less than satisfactory,” he said. “I thought it was a very ineffective means of communicating,” he said. “It was not the same as being in the room.”

Web conferencing technologies continue to proliferate with companies seeking to cut travel budgets. Publicare Marketing Communications, based in Frankfurt, Germany, with an office in Fairport, New York, has compiled a review of 35 such services, outlining the pros and cons and rating each. At the top of its list is Citrix GoToMeeting that rated 9.65 out of a possible 10. It’s a Windows-based program recommended for enabling a host to set up an online meeting in advance and gives the host the ability to show those on line materials that are being discussed. The host can also turn over the controls of the mouse and keyboard to any of the participants and using webcams, participants can view one another. It’s priced at $49 per month or can be purchased for up a full year for $468, according to Publicare. It can accommodate up to 25 participants at a time.

Skype, on the other hand, has a lower rating at 8.03 and is considered “adequate,” according to Publicare, adding that it’s not useful if a meeting needs to be planned in advance since it doesn’t offer a scheduling function or ability to invite participants. It’s also more limited in the number of participants who can use it. It’s priced at $4.99 per month based on a one-year subscription or a monthly fee of $9.99 with no commitment month-to-month, according to Publicare.

The town is exploring options, Chief Read said. No information is yet available on pricing, but he said in addition to looking into technologies such as “GoToMeeting” and Skype, the town is “working on enhancing the meeting room with a sound system, microphones and other technologies,” he said.