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TMCNet:  Phoning it in? Tega Cay City Council talks about letting voters decide the issue

[February 04, 2011]

Phoning it in? Tega Cay City Council talks about letting voters decide the issue

TEGA CAY, Feb 02, 2011 (Fort Mill Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The issue of teleconferencing as a way for officials to attend council meetings split the Tega Cay City Council.

Some members want to take advantage of teleconferencing, while others say it could impair representation.

In a recent vote, council members Dottie Hersey and Stephen Perkins gave teleconferencing a thumbs up. Their votes locked with John Dervay and Mayor George Sheppard. Councilman Larry Harper, who in January resigned his at-large council seat, did not attend last month's meeting due to work-related obligations.

However, "We did it before," Harper said of teleconferencing. "I didn't see a problem with it then." When Perkins formerly served on the city council in 2005, work-related travel caused him to use teleconferencing several times to participate in council meetings.

"When I did participate, it was at a time when council was dealing with the Walmart issue," he said, referring to a contentious decision to allow the big box retailer into the city. It now anchors the Stonecrest community.

"That was a critical time for the city," Perkins said.

An e-mail released by Tega Cay's administrative office notes that Perkins, former Councilman Ron Kirby and Steve Martin, former finance chairman, participated in meetings in 2004 and 2005 via teleconferencing.

The e-mail notes Kirby participated in such a meeting on Oct. 18, 2004 as did Martin on April 18, 2005. Perkins, the e-mail notes, participated in eight meetings by teleconferencing in 2004 and 2005.

"There wasn't any frequency issue," City Manger Grant Duffield said. "There was concern that the person on the telephone could hear what was being said and could be heard if and when he choose to make comments." Fast forward five years: Perkins and at least one other council member give teleconferencing the green light.

"Assuming teleconferencing is not cost prohibitive and does not present challenges that can not be overcome, I believe having an electronic means by which a council member can participate in meetings and thereby represent the citizens, voice opinions and cast votes is necessary and reasonable," Hersey said.

While embracing technology is all the rage for some, it brings some questions to the table, Sheppard said.

"I have too many questions that need to be answered," Sheppard said. "We do not have an endless supply of tax dollars to spend on this issue. What are the parameters of using video conferencing?" Putting the issue to vote last month, Sheppard said, was premature.

"I do not believe that we have exhausted all of our due diligence to make a responsible decision," Sheppard said. "Personally, I don't feel that government should be at arm's length. I ran for a council seat not a council telephone. I believe you should be present for your constituents." To the contrary, Perkins said, local government can benefit from teleconferencing.

"There is definitely a place for teleconferencing for city council meetings," Perkins said. "I definitely support the measure with the right parameters." Still, he said, using teleconferencing should not be the norm.

"I don't think teleconferencing should be used in a situation where you have a council member who is away for an extended period of time," Perkins said.

However, he said, teleconferencing usage should be restricted and used sparely for family emergencies or business trips.

"One of the stipulations, obviously, is we have to have a quorum," he said. "I want to be clear, I don't think it's the end all be all. There's a time and place for it to be used. It should not be abused." It is not clear when the council will next address the issue of teleconferencing. The council next meets Feb. 7, Duffield said.

"No one's requested it be on that agenda," Duffield said. "Typically, the first meeting of the month is to address any unfinished business from the previous meeting. Anyone can make a motion to have discussion about the item." The question is will council members travel that road again? "The council's position is somewhat divided at this point," Duffield said. "I think council realizes that there will be more discussion around this issue. I'm not sure when it will come back to the table per say." In a letter dated Aug. 25, 2005, Duffield asked the state attorney general's office if was permissible to establish a law that allows for meetings in which council members participate by phone. The answer was "yes" if certain conditions are met.

Conditions mandated maintaining a quorum as well as ensuring that council members and the public could hear all comments made by the public, council or other council members. Also required was that no communication could happen between those participating in the meeting by telephone and other council members except for "establishing the telephone connections," and that the person who presided over the meeting must be present during said meeting.

When it comes to public service, Sheppard said, representation is paramount.

"Yes, the attorney general has issued an opinion on the issue, and it states that you can have electronic meetings under certain circumstances, but the MASC (the Municipal Association of South Carolina) has told us that they may challenge that opinion if we proceeded," Sheppard said. "It is clear in my mind that it is a matter of representation and how your constituents want to be represented." With Harper's resignation, a special election is upcoming in Tega Cay. Answering the question about teleconferencing could be handled at the election polls, Sheppard said.

"If the voters of Tega Cay want us to be able to video conference council meetings then I would like to hear from them with a non-binding referendum. A non-binding referendum is going to allow a good cross section of the city's voters to voice their opinion," Sheppard said. "If we have a public hearing, we would get at the most 200 residents to express their opinion. I don't feel that that would be a good cross section of the number of voters we have." Dervay hasn't given teleconferencing an approving nod.

"I don't know enough to say yeah or nay," he said.

Sometimes, he said, conducting governmental business the good old fashion way -- face to face -- works best.

"If it's a good match for Tega Cay, why isn't it a good match for Fort Mill? Why isn't it a good match for York County?" Dervay asked. "There's a contract between the politician and the voter. There's an expectation, and that expectation is you're going to be at the meetings." Dervay said he wants to hear from Tega Cayians come special election day.

"I'm supporting a referendum. I'm going to put it to the voters," he said. "If the voters want to do it, then I'm willing to get that done. I think there needs to be restrictions on it so it's not abused." Former Councilman Les Conner urged caution when considering taking the issue to voters.

"Look at it. Consider it wisely," Conner said. "I'm not sure it's a referendum issue. I think it's a legislative issue. Just because no one's done it, doesn't mean we can't." So, which way will the council go? "I hope that we take the step," Hersey said. "We've got to complete fact finding and understand the cost associated with it. If the cost is too high, we can't afford it and may have to look into plan B." Hersey's employer is no stranger to teleconferencing and video conferencing.

"We need to communicate with our operation facilities around the country," Hersey, an attorney, said. "We can't be there, plus it's not cost effective to have people travel to attend a meeting." Tega Cay's council may not take the leap to teleconferencing during Harper's last month as a council member.

"I don't see it happening in Tega Cay any time soon," he said. However, "I think it's going to happen one way or another." To see more of the Fort Mill Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.fortmilltimes.com/. Copyright (c) 2011, Fort Mill Times, S.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.

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