Calling into council

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Columbus tables decision on whether remote participation should count

COLUMBUS — The Town of Columbus is currently considering creating a policy where, at some meetings, a council member can participate by phone remotely. 

The Columbus Town Council met Thursday and tabled a decision to create a new policy. 

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The decision stemmed from Councilman Robert Williamson being out of town during a work session earlier this year, though he was able to participate over the phone. 

Last month, Williamson thought he should have been counted present as he participated in the conversation, he said. Because the town does not have a policy on remote participation, Williamson was not counted as present. 

Columbus Town Manager Tim Barth said there is a local government law approved in 2013 about remote participation. 

“There have been a couple of times when the town council has used remote participation to allow one council member to participate,” Barth said. “If the town council wants to allow its use, then the [North Carolina] School of Government suggests having a policy on when it would be allowed and under what circumstances.” 

Barth said if council adopts a policy, he suggests the participation be limited. 

Frayda Bluestein, with the North Carolina School of Government, wrote that legal risks can be avoided if remote participation is allowed only when the member’s presence does not constitute a quorum, where the matter involves discussion only and where the remote participant’s vote is not the deciding vote. 

Barth also added that remote participation is only possible if the council meets in the conference room and not in council chambers. 

“You may or may not want to have a policy, because to my knowledge, most towns don’t have a policy,” Barth said. 

Williamson said remote participation can be a policy that could be abused. 

He said the state statute was written in 1979 about electronics, when there were no texts or emails, so it was conference calls only. He said when he got elected, he blocked out every third Thursday on his calendar so he could attend all regular meetings. He said while he can be at all regular meetings, special meetings sometimes cause a problem, particularly when they only have 24-48 hours notice and he may be in Texas.

Williamson gave other council meetings his proposal for a policy for remote participation, which includes the policy only applying to emergency and special meetings when a quorum already exists. 

Council tabled the decision to create a new policy and plans to discuss it during the town’s next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 17.