By Dan Spalding
WARSAW – City leaders are embracing a policy that will allow city council members in the future to participate in meetings electronically.
The city’s online streaming system and archives – established three years ago – proved to be a big asset during the pandemic, and after a year-long pandemic, officials have warmed up to the idea that city council can be conducted effectively with one or more board members attending electronically.
They like it so much they voted on Monday, June 7, to establish a policy that will allow council members to participate in meetings online.
The move was made as the state’s emergency order, which allowed for government boards to meet online during the pandemic, is set to expire at the end of June.
The resolution is copied “word for word” from a new state law approved during the pandemic.
“It allows us to continue what I think we proved we can do … when the pandemic necessitated this type of communication,” said Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer, who is president of AIM.
Council on Monday approved a resolution that was drafted by AIM – Accelerate Indiana Municipalities – that is being touted as an option to municipal leaders across the state.
The resolution, which officials readily admit needs to be amended, applies to the council members and any committee appointed directly by the council.
Dissemination of the resolution across the state has led to numerous questions that are not yet resolved, said City Attorney Scott Reust.
Many of those questions will be hashed out in the coming weeks when AIM hosts a webinar on the subject
The “Electronic Meetings Policy” resolution allows council members to participate in a meeting by any electronic means but stipulates that all participating council members be able to simultaneously communicate with each other, and (except for executive sessions), allows the public to simultaneously attend and observe the meeting.
The resolution limits the number of meetings any one council member can do online to 50% of the meetings scheduled each year. Exceptions would be made for military service; illness, death of a relative or an emergency involving actual or threatened injury to persons or property.
Thallemer and numerous council members expressed concern over allowing council members from attending as much as 50 percent of the meetings electronically.
Councilman Jack Wilhite suggested a 25% percent cap would be more appropriate and voted against the resolution Monday while acknowledging support for the main thrust of the policy.
The policy still requires physical attendance of council members on certain high-profile votes such as the final budget vote, reductions in personnel, proposed taxes or fees or votes involving eminent domain. They would also not be permitted to initiate a referendum while attending electronically.
The policy requires roll call votes on all matters when one or more council members are participating electronically.
Not more than 50% of the council can participate electronically at that same meeting.
The resolution also limits council members from having more than two consecutive meetings attended electronically.
But Councilwoman Diane Quance questioned whether a remote council member could vote on other issues if some of the prohibited actions are scheduled for that meeting. Councilman Jeff Grose questioned how two consecutive meetings is defined since they have other related city meetings such as plan commission or the board of zoning appeals.
Since many of the council members have already attended electronically earlier this year, there was a general consensus that they would not begin tracking online attendance until the first of the year.
Council members voiced support for changes that would limit the potential misuse of the policy.
While some council members said they have no concerns with current council members, they said they need to guard against creating circumstances that would allow somebody to attend while spending months on vacation in Florida, for example.