Williamsburg area boards try out new e-participation law for public meetings

JAMES CITY – Virginia's General Assembly updated part of its Freedom of Information Act during the 2014 legislative session to allow members of public boards to take part in meetings remotely when a personal situation would otherwise prevent that board member from doing so. A forthcoming Williamsburg-James City Schools policy, discussed during the Aug. 5 School Board meeting, would formally recognize that law in the division's policy manual.

Two School Board members have already participated electronically during 2014, but only after the General Assembly passed the legislation, according to School Board Chair Ruth Larson. One member of James City County's Board of Supervisors has also attended electronically.

Larson said the division's attorney helped craft the proposed policy. She said technology staff members were able to do a test prior to the meetings to iron out any technical difficulties.

"So far it's gone pretty smoothly," she said.

Previously, Virginia's law and allowed members of public boards to participate remotely – as long as a quorum of board members were physically present at the meeting. It also required the members who were present to approve the absentee member's participation. The new law, signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in early April, now requires public boards to have a written policy to handle such participation. It drops the earlier requirements of board votes.

One restriction remains: Board members may only participate electronically for two meetings or 25 percent of the board's total meetings for the calendar year, whichever is fewer.

"I think allowing local boards to participate electronically, in case of illness or things like that, is really important," school board member Elise Emanuel said in an interview Tuesday.

Emanuel took part in meetings remotely on two recent occasions when health issues prevented her from attending in person. She telephoned into the meetings, and was able to listen to the proceedings and both the School Board and general public could hear her comments conference-call style.

"It was good to be able to stay in touch. I think it's much better to be present, but if you're held up that way, it's good to be able to participate in that matter," she said.

Board member Heather Cordasco has also participated in recent meetings via electronic means. During the Aug. 5 meeting, Cordasco explained that the change to the law has its genesis in northern Virginia school divisions where board members sometimes have trouble making it to their meetings in time because of rush-hour traffic.

"For the most part, people seemed to be using it responsibly," she said at that time.

The policy could return to the WJC School Board for a second reading as early Aug. 19. In York County Schools, a policy was adopted in December 2011 allowing school board members to participate in meetings remotely by electronic means.

While James City County has no specific policy covering remote participation of its board of supervisors, spokeswoman Jody Puckett said in an email to the Gazette that the county is able to accommodate members of its boards via the state law in case of an emergency or illness.

"We're always happy to accommodate a member that requests it due to those issues," Puckett said, noting that James City Supervisor Jim Kennedy previously took part in meetings remotely earlier this year due to illness.

Williamsburg's City Council is considering a similar policy. According to a video record of the July 10 meeting, while some council members said they had no initial opposition to the idea, they did say they wanted more time to consider it. Council ultimately postponed adoption.

Sampson can be reached at 757-345-2345.