Troy council comments via Skype will be rare, officials say

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published December 6, 2017

TROY — Those who watched or attended the Nov. 20 Troy City Council meeting witnessed history — the first time, and perhaps the last time, an elected official “virtually” participated in an open meeting. 

At the start of the meeting, Mayor Dane Slater announced that “this is going to be a unique meeting.” 

He then made a motion to allow Councilman Ethan Baker to offer comments — but not vote — during the meeting via Skype, which Slater said was a “rare exception to the rules of procedure.” 

The council voted 6-0 to approve a resolution waiving the rule that was enacted as a City Council rule of procedure in 2006, which prohibits wire communications by and to council members during any meeting of the council. 

“It’s pretty rare for that to happen,” Troy City Clerk Aileen Dickson said of elected officials across the state participating in meetings via Skype. 

Baker told the Troy Times that he had planned a trip out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday before the agenda for the Nov. 20 meeting was released, thinking it would be a light agenda. He said he contacted the city attorney, the city manager and council members to see if it was feasible for him to participate in the meeting via Skype when the issue of 200-square-foot signs came up. 

Baker said he’d received a lot of phone calls and emails from residents and business owners about the signs. 

At issue are five 200-square-foot signs allowed under the current city ordinance that have recently been constructed. One is on Dequindre Road, north of 14 Mile Road; three are on Rochester Road — one south of Long Lake Road and two south of Wattles Road; and one is on Maple Road, at John R Road.

The resolution lists concerns about distractions for drivers, a drop in property values and the number of complaints the signs have generated. The council voted 6-0 to place a 180-day moratorium on processing any permit applications for signs. 

“It sickened me to realize I would not be a part of that conversation,” Baker said. “I wanted to share my thoughts and feelings. I knew I wouldn’t be voting.”

Baker noted that when the council appointed Paul McCown to fill a partial term after Councilman Jim Campbell resigned in summer 2016, one of the finalists was interviewed via Skype during a council meeting. At that time, Baker had asked city officials if that was something the council, in general, could do. “I never thought it would be me,” Baker said. 

He agreed that it should be a “rare exception. I 100 percent agree with that,” Baker said. “We’re elected to be there in person.” 

“One of the concerns was that we don’t want to set a precedent,” Slater said. “The Open Meetings Act is very clear. We would do it on a case-by-case basis. There has to be a strong justification for it to come up.

“He wanted to be able to participate in the discussion. I thought it was a good reason,” Slater said. 

“I’m thankful for the city staff for coordinating and the City Council for letting me do it,” Baker said. “We ended up with a good result.” 

The Michigan Municipal League’s 2015 Handbook for Municipal Officials says to “seek the advice of your municipal attorney on using Skype or teleconferencing to participate in meetings.”

The handbook cites Michigan Attorney General Opinion 6835 of 1995, which concluded that an intermediate school district representative could participate in a meeting through interactive television and still comply with the OMA. 

State legislators have addressed this issue. 

Michigan House Bill 4184 was referred to the Committee on Elections and Government Reform in June. The bill would amend a section of the OMA, with some exceptions, to specify that each member who votes at a meeting open to the public must be physically present. The bill does state that “it is understood that members of a public body currently can participate in meetings of public bodies by teleconferencing, interactive television and similar means.” 

“It gets reintroduced pretty regularly,” City Attorney Lori Grigg-Bluhm said of legislation requiring elected officials to be physically present to vote.