While Bethany Beach is among the first municipalities in the area to allow the public to remotely listen in on council meetings via electronic methods, their neighbors in South Bethany could soon become one of the first in the area to allow council members to participate in meetings from their own remote locations.
The town council on Sept. 14 held a second reading for a code amendment that would allow council and committee member participation in meetings via remote electronic access. Under the proposed legislation, all council, board and committee members could participate in meetings held at town hall via such mechanisms as computer or telephone, except for public hearings before the Board of Adjustments and Planning Commission.
Mayor Kathy Jankowski recommended last Friday that the amendment get one additional element, regarding how such remote participation would interact with the council’s existing absence policy for its members, which permits three absences from meetings per council year before a council member would be asked to resign.
Jankowski said the amendment, as proposed, would restrict council members from exercising the remote access option for more than two meetings in a row or more than three times in a year. That would be in addition to the three excused absences from in-person meetings. She said some had thought that degree of absenteeism was excessive and recommended a change.
As proposed under the change recommended by the mayor, council members could only miss three meetings per year, whether they attend remotely or just miss the meeting entirely.
Councilwoman Pat Voveris said she was in agreement with the stricter rule.
“I’m a big proponent of seeing people in person. That’s what people elected me to do. I hope people will be doing this as an exception and not the rule,” she said.
Jankowski said she hoped the remote access would enhance council meetings, rather than enable absenteeism.
“The purpose was to make things more flexible, to enable more participation, rather than less,” she said.
Councilman George Junkin said he questioned whether the attendance policy should be addressed in the ordinance regarding remote access, rather than the council’s protocol manual, which is revised each June. As a policy, it could be changed with a simple council vote, rather than requiring three readings and a council vote for any changes, as the ordinance would.
Junkin said he also wondered if the council might want to offer even more flexibility, an “escape clause,” that would allow them to approve more extended absences or remote participation, should individual circumstances suggest it and should the other council members unanimously approve it.
“We might have a circumstance where something happened and a council member was out a lot,” he said. “But we may not want to do that,” he noted, based on the prior discussion regarding limiting combined absences. Voveris and Jankowski confirmed it wasn’t something they wanted to do.
Code committee member and former councilman Bob Cestone told the council he, too, didn’t think more absences being excused was the way to go.
“My feeling is, if someone has that tight of a schedule, then they shouldn’t have run for council in the first place,” he said, referencing cases in the past where, he said, council members who ran businesses near their full-time residences would get stuck at meetings or miss a plane and miss the council meeting in South Bethany as a result. “They didn’t usually miss three in a row,” he noted, referencing the town charter’s limit on missing meetings to three in a row, rather than three cumulative absences.
Council members planned to further discuss the ordinance at their next council workshop, on Sept. 27, with expectations of making various changes to the language therein and having the town solicitor review the final language before a third reading and vote is held. A related change to the council protocol manual could also be drafted for adoption at that time or thereafter.