Montgomery County

Montgomery County Legislature debates future of remote meeting participation

Montgomery County Office Building off Broadway in Fonda on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

Montgomery County Office Building off Broadway in Fonda on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

FONDA Members of the Montgomery County Legislature got into a lengthy debate over a proposed local law that would allow officials to continue participating in meetings remotely if they are unable to appear in-person.

The local law introduced at Tuesday’s committee meeting would allow individual legislators to participate in meetings by videoconference if they are unable to be present physically due to “extraordinary circumstances.”

The draft legislation lists as valid reasons to attend remotely “disability, illness, caregiving responsibilities, or any other significant or unexpected factor or event.”

The law would require a quorum of the Legislature to meet in-person for official business to be conducted, according to Montgomery County Attorney Meghan Manion.

An amendment to Open Meetings Law included in the 2022 state budget allows local governments to enable meeting participation by videoconferencing under these conditions through the adoption of a local law.

The change allows remote meetings to continue that were authorized by executive order during the pandemic while removing language from Open Meetings Law that previously required officials attending meetings remotely to provide the public access to their physical locations.

The state budget legislation provided local governments a grace period to continue meeting remotely while getting local laws in place through June 14. The Legislature would have to act before then if members want to keep the option open.

“[Otherwise] it would mean moving forward next month everyone has to be physically present. There can be no remote participation,” Manion said.

“We’ve done that for many, many years,” replied District 2 Legislator Brian Sweet.

District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell questioned the law’s necessity and suggested the Legislature could consider its adoption if meeting attendance became an issue in the future.

“I don’t see the sense of urgency to do it now,” Purtell said. “It was nice to do the videoconferencing through COVID when we were all locked up in our homes, but I think we have a responsibility to be here in-person.”

Yet, three members of the Legislature were unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting and there has been a vacant seat since the death of District 8 Legislator Joe Isabel in January.

Legislature Chairman Michael Pepe and District 3 Legislator Roy Dimond participated in this week’s meeting remotely. District 6 Legislator John Duchessi was absent.

The illnesses of Duchessi and Isabel last year coupled with the occasional absences of other officials at times meant a quorum could not be reached of the Legislature’s then five-person committees who review resolutions before they are sent to the full board for consideration.

To prevent those issues from recurring, the Legislature made each subgroup a committee of the whole through at least this year.

Although only five out of the nine members of the Legislature are needed to reach a quorum of the full board, absences are automatically registered as “no” votes, potentially creating obstacles to passing legislation if several members are unable to appear at meetings and there isn’t an option to participate remotely.

“I guess I don’t really understand what the downside is,” Dimond said of the local law. “I think it’s something that we need to officially have a meeting.”

However, Purtell questioned whether the law as written could be used as an excuse by officials who simply choose not to attend meetings in-person due to the inconvenience.

“It has no teeth. It has no ability to be policed,” Purtell said.

District 4 Legislator Robert Headwell, Jr. suggested voters would take action if they take issue with the frequent absence or remote attendance of any elected officials.

“If we should have learned anything from the virus it’s that there are other ways of having meetings and being in attendance when something comes up,” Headwell added. “I don’t understand why this is even a discussion.”

Sweet mostly took issue with the use of broad language in the resolution, saying he wanted more time to think about the local law before considering its adoption. Dimond pointed out he would have a week to mull it over.

Officials ultimately voted 6-2 to move the local law out of committee and place it on the agenda for the regular Legislature meeting this coming Tuesday. District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly and Purtell voted against the action.

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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