Durham County commissioners on Monday set a policy for participating in meetings remotely.
Previously, board members had occasionally joined meetings by phone but did not have a policy guiding the practice, said county attorney Lowell Siler.
don't specifically authorize or prohibit remote participation, and rules requiring a quorum (or majority of the board) in order for a meeting to meet legal muster don't actually state members have to be physically present.
Durham County's policy says commissioners can only join meetings by phone if a quorum is physically present at the meeting. The absent commissioner cannot participate in closed sessions, quasi-judicial hearings, cannot be the deciding vote on a matter and cannot make motions.
"There's a lack of clarity, a lack of case law, with respect to what you can do with voting, particularly as a deciding vote," Siler said earlier this month. " ... Until there is some case law to support doing it one way or the other [the decision] can be called into question."
Commissioners can only participate remotely because of personal illness or disability, for work purposes, or for a family event or emergency.
The board had asked county staff to work on a remote participation policy after updating its rules of procedures in December. They discussed the proposal during their May 1 meeting.
"I think over the last maybe three or four years we've had two occasions where commissioners actually ... were absent, I think out of town, and they actually were able to listen to a work session," Siler said. "It's something that we haven't done a lot but if we're going to allow for participation remotely we probably need to add it to your rules of procedure." Typically, commissioners do not take action during work sessions.
Board members agreed the option should be used sparingly, although for now, the policy does not limit how often commissioners can remotely participate in an effort to accommodate a surgery, long-term illness or unexpected event.
"If we find that commissioners are overusing this we can always pull back," said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. "The thing is our board has tended have, fortunately, very fine attendance and participation. We want to keep it that way but on the other hand circumstances do develop and I think particularly if there is a very important vote ... I just think that that's a good thing to be able to accommodate."
Reckhow noted that commissioners participating remotely can watch a live-stream of the meeting and catch any presentations or public comments.
Commissioner Brenda Howerton raised concerns about people live-streaming the meetings being able to hear a commissioner on speakerphone. The policy approved Monday says that if the absent commissioner can't be heard clearly, the board chair can deny him or her remote participation.
"If we're going to do this, we're going to have to upgrade our system because they will not be able to hear what we're saying and I think that's a disadvantage to our citizens if we have a conversation on the phone and they can't hear it," Howerton said.
County Clerk Michelle Parker-Evans said in July, equipment in board chambers will be upgraded, to include a conference phone.