Selectmen: Westborough Boards Can't Phone It In

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Town Planner Jim Robbins addresses selectmen March 27. Photo Credit: John Swinconeck

WESTBOROUGH, Mass. – Members of town boards must be physically in order to vote, or they miss their chance. Selectmen Tuesday, March 27 rejected 2-3 a proposal to allow elected and appointed officials the ability to vote remotely.

According to Town Counsel Greg Franks, the state attorney general recently allowed remote voting, under certain conditions. Among those conditions: The chairman would have to approve remote voting ahead of time, and whatever costs incurred would have to be borne by the absentee. Remote voting couldn't be used to obtain a quorum, and could only be used in emergencies, during an illness, or when a vast geographic distance separates the board member.

That won't be the case in Westborough.

"I don't find that there is a need," said Selectman Denny Drewry, who warned that remote voting could "dilute the process" of government. "If someone comes forward to serve an office or a committee, you know very well that you need to attend the majority of meetings."

Selectman George Barrette agreed, stating that approving the measure was "asking for trouble." During his regular work day, Barrette said, "I do Skype, webinars and conference calls too much, every day. There's not a place for it in town government."

"There's something important about being physically present," said Chairman Leigh Emery. "There's a lot that's lost when you can't be there, personally. There's body language. If you're on the phone, you can't see the non-verbal give-and-take."

She continued: "I think it's too big a change, too fast and too far. Too broad. It's no as an effective way to run a meeting."

It was another rejection for a proposal by Selectman Timothy Dodd, whose Sunshine Week proclamation was passed over during the same meeting. Dodd defended the measure, noting that the school committee voted to support remote voting.

Remote voting, he said, was meant as a policy "so the business of the town can continue."

"It's not meant to be a cop-out," Dodd said. "It's not meant to let people slip away and not attend meetings."

According to Town Manager Jim Malloy, there are issues when the planning board requires a super majority to grant a special permit. Planning Board members cannot miss more than one public hearing, or they are forbidden to vote on the special permit. As a result, the hearing process can go on for up to three months in order to assure proper attendance.

Town Planner Jim Robbins said the board has said that while no projects have been stopped as a result of missed hearings, there have been planning board members who found themselves unable to vote because they missed a hearing.

Ian Johnson, who voted with Dodd in the minority, said the board needed to be realistic about "the world we live in" and the situations that occur that cause Town board members to miss meetings. He said he would rather have the ability to vote on an issue than miss the vote entirely.

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