Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Board Members Accuse Each Other of Politicizing Electronic Attendance Issue

Board members traded barbs over the contentious issue of allowing members to attend meetings remotely, using phone conferencing.

"I've been told this is not a partisan issue," Democratic Board member Chris Drake said after offering a rewrite of the policy that would allow members to attend via electronic means.  "But it's beginning to feel like one."

As evidence for his claim, Drake cited emails, and testimony of Republican Common Council members opposed to allowing electronic attendance.

The controversy stems from a Board policy that had been altered to allow new board member Deborah Cain to attend meetings while at work in Britain.

"I'm very disappointed in that comment," Republican board member Sheila Daniels said, addressing Drake's criticism. "It's not about a person, it's about changing a bylaw."

"It's beginning to feel like a Sharks versus Jets issue," Drake said, making a Broadway reference.  And when Daniels scolded Drake for making it political, Drake interrupted loudly, shouting "I made it political?  I made it political?"

He was gaveled back into order.

In the end the Board voted along party lines to accept Drake's rewrite of the policy, with Board member Franca Biales abstaining.

The meeting began at it's new early start time of 6:30 with members of the public coming down on both sides of the issue.

Republican Common Council member, and former mayor Seb Giuliano, was opposed.

"As part of the Common Council, it's not something we'd ever do," Giuliano said.  "If you're 5,000 miles away I don't know how you'd get a sense of what's going on in the community."

Resident Bethany Ty countered by saying: "I think it's important for anyone elected to the Board of Ed to have that access."

Her opinion was echoed by city personnel director Faith Johnson who called Cain her mentee.

"She's over in a different country so she has no choice but to teleconference," Johnson said.  " I commend her for being up at midnight and doing her due diligence."

Drakes rewrite of the policy included several provisions which would limit the opportunity for any board member to take advantage of attendance by teleconference.

Among the requirements:
 - There must be a physical quorum at the meeting
 - Members may take advantage if they are ill, disabled, unable to attend because of employment, family or emergency
 - Any one member may take advantage of remote attendance only twice, unless given additional dispensation by majority board vote
 - The remote member must be heard, and be able to hear all other board members
 - All votes must be roll call votes when a member is attending remotely
 - Electronic failures may disavow participation in related agenda items
 - And electronic failures will not delay board business

Cain herself said she researched other Boards in Connecticut which allow electronic remote attendance.

"To my surprise there were many of them," Cain said.  "I think it's fair and balanced that we have the electronic equipment to make it work, so we should move forward."

Daniels noted that the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education recommends against the practice, and that the fact that the city's Common Council does not allow it should set precedent.

Drake countered that what the Common Council does is irrelevant.

"I think we should take our lead from the State Board of Education which allows the practice," Drake said.  "And not what the Common Council does."

The amended policy will be on the agenda for the next Board of Education meeting in March for a final vote.

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