AUGUSTA, Maine — Phoning it in may no longer be an option for elected and appointed officials, especially when it comes to voting, if a bill before the Maine Legislature is approved.
On Thursday, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee approved a measure designed to ban most public officials from participating in meetings or voting on issues by phone or other electronic means.
LD 1809 does allow members of a quasi-municipal sewer, water or sanitary district to participate and vote remotely during a meeting if a quorum of the board is physically assembled in a public meeting space, and they must do so using communications technology that combines both audio and video.
The measure doesn’t specifically address municipal elected officials, school boards or other appointed government bodies, and while state law doesn’t prohibit the practice of phoning in meeting attendance, it doesn’t permit it either.
Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, the committee’s House chairman, said the measure also prohibits remote participation in an executive session by sewer, water and sanitary district officials.
It only allows remote voting if those bodies adopt policies that allow combined audio-video links that provide for public observation and participation in any proceedings that would otherwise be considered public.
The bill also limits remote voting to issues that do not depend on testimony or evidence presented to the board during the meeting.
“The main folks we found that were using remote meetings now without any specific policies were sewer and water districts,” Priest said.
However, the state’s attorney general has taken a different position, Priest said, noting several decisions in case law that indicate remote voting or the participation in executive session by phone is not allowed under Maine’s open meetings law, the Freedom of Access Act, as the act does not expressly permit the practice.
Creating a provision that grants quasi-municipal boards an avenue to the practice may only muddy the legal waters further. The Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee had asked the Legislature to clarify in statute that the practice of remote voting be either allowed or disallowed, according to the committee’s legal analyst, Peggy Reinsch.
She said the committee vote Thursday reflects lawmakers’ understanding that because the practice isn’t permitted in statute, except for a handful of appointed state boards and now quasi-municipal entities under the new bill, then it is prohibited for all other elected bodies.
Priest said the bill basically allows only certain quasi-municipal entities to hold remote votes, but they must first set policy based on the parameters set out in the bill.
Among other provisions, those participating remotely must be able to see and hear all of the other members of the voting body and audience. They must also have access to any documents or other materials presented during the meeting.
The law allows for an exception to the quorum rule if the meeting is being conducted to address an emergency situation and the body follows all other provisions in the law.
Priest said the law change allowing sewer and water districts to set policy for remote meetings is essentially an experiment to see how well it works.
“They can’t participate in executive sessions because there is a security issue, obviously,” Priest said.
He also said they couldn’t vote on any issue that affects an individual’s rights.
“Because they wouldn’t be present to actually see the person and make a judgment about a person’s veracity,” Priest said. “They can, but being remote is not the same as being there.”
The committee rejected another measure, LD 1818, that came at the recommendation of the state’s new public ombudsman for open government.
Priest said the bill was rejected only because the Department of Administration and Financial Services has written to say they will make the changes without a law change being necessary.
That measure would have required the state to add the search term “FOAA” to state-maintained websites and program the search to bring up the contact information of the public information officer for the agency in question.
The bill was meant to give the public more direct access to the contact information of the individual in charge of public records requests at any given agency.
The first bill faces additional votes in both the House and the Senate.