Editor’s Journal: Electronic Meetings

elevtronic-meetings

Story and picture by Hal Goodtree.

Cary, NC – Kudos to Town staff for bringing up the issue of electronic meetings. Now, Town Council needs to show support for this important initiative.

Electronic Meetings

First, a simple definition: an electronic meeting is a way to get together without being in the same room. WebEx and Google Hangout are two popular video-enabled electronic meetings. But a conference call (on a phone) can also be considered an electronic meeting.

Video conferencing has been around for years. Conference calls on a phone have been around for decades. So, at this point, it’s safe to say electronic meetings are familiar to most people.

Audience

Some electronic meetings, like Google Hangout, can be broadcast. This enables a virtually unlimited number of people to observe a meeting in real time.

Participants

Electronic meeting technologies can be scaled. But from a practical standpoint, let’s say the limit on participants is around 20 without undue cost and effort.

Participants in electronic meetings can hear, see, talk and be heard just as if they were in the room.

Electronic meetings can also be recorded, broadcast at a later date and archived for posterity.

Millions of people everyday get together, collaborate and make decisions via electronic meetings, from office workers to the President of the United States.

What Cary Needs to Do

The proposal currently before Council concerns Boards and Commissions.

Town Council needs to approve this initiative and give staff some running room to pilot a program.

Start small, but start right.

  1. Equip a Town Hall conference room for regular electronic (video) meetings.
  2. Broadcast and record the meetings
  3. Set up rules for citizen participation. Since “Public Speaks Out” is one person at a time, we should be able to live within the limits of simultaneous participation.
  4. Allow Board and Commission members to participate and vote via electronic meetings.

Right now, Council seems to be discussing only audience participation. This is a shortsighted perspective. Voting members should also be able to participate, and their attendance and votes should count (not currently the situation). There are legal ramifications to this position, but “an abundance of caution” should not bleed over into an abhorrence of change.

As we gain experience, we can refine and perfect the process and the rules.

Robert Campbell, a member of Cary’s Information Services Advisory Board (ISAB), has a unique perspective on the issue. “This is all about expanding, not restricting,” Campbell said.

“Leave it up to the individual boards to determine their best way of using the technology, don’t impose arbitrary limits on how they might use it — especially since the majority of boards are there to provide advice, let them develop that advice and use what they find appropriate.”

Reasons Why

The biggest reason to enable widespread, everyday use of electronic meetings: Sunshine.

Few people attend Board and Commission meetings – the audience is often zero. Citizens have complained about the hardship of getting to and from meetings based on distance from their homes (Cary is 53 square miles), disabilities and C-Tran schedules.

Instead of bringing people to the meetings, WebEx, GoToMeeting and Google Hangout bring the meetings to the people.

The second good reason to march confidently down the road of electronic meetings: using technology to engage citizens should be a priority for our Town. Here’s a chance to make that true.

Practical Considerations

We should use our nascent social media channels to support electronic meetings. Facebook and Twitter could be used to both promote electronic meetings and even to gather feedback and commentary.

The proposal from staff opens a window on the future of Cary. Council should support electronic meetings for both audience members and appointed officials.

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4 replies
  1. David F.
    David F. says:

    The ISAB is the Information Services Advisory Board – not the Interactive Services Advisory Board.

  2. Brent
    Brent says:

    There are some great points, ideas and proposals here, but if I’m not mistaken, state law constrains what may and may not be done in this area. The Town of Cary can pursue only what NC law permits, and I’m not sure that state law permits doing all of the things suggested here.

    There’s also much authoritative advice available about this topic, and there are some drawbacks that need to be weighed against the benefits that the article enumerates.

    I think that some form of electronic meetings is most definitely the future, and I expect Cary to lead the way. However, the “abundance of caution” the Town practices is, I believe, quite appropriate in this case.

    • Ian Henshaw
      Ian Henshaw says:

      The Town Staff has done a great job in outlining what is and is not allowed by current NC statutes and why they believe that allowing electronic meetings would be good for the Town of Cary Boards and Commissions. I know that staff report TC13-07 is long and a little hard to read, but I would recommend anyone who is interested in the discussion to read the report so you will know all the details about this issue.

      Town Staff has recommended option 3A, which is to “Allow all members [of Boards and Commissions] the option to electronically participate in their meetings with no advanced notice to the staff liaison and with no special circumstances. The chair, or vice chair or other member designated to serve as chair, and the staff liaison shall be physically present in the room to facilitate the meeting.” and also “Where members are allowed to participate in their meetings electronically, also allow the public to participate electronically in these meetings. It is the discretion of each appointed group to determine if the public has a designated time to make comments at these meetings, or if the public’s role is to have an opportunity to listen without making comments.”

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