This article was corrected on Aug. 8, 2012. An explanation for the correction appears at the bottom of the article.
Elected officials in Mount Airy no longer will be allowed to virtually attend town council meetings.
Under a decision Monday by the town’s five-member council, members will have to be physically present at meetings in order to vote.
The council voted 3-2 to approve the change, with councilmen Bob King and David Blais opposed.
The issue was first discussed following a meeting in July, in which Blais participated in a town meeting via Skype — a software application that allows users to make calls over the Internet.
During that meeting, Blais’ webcast was interrupted by connection failures because of an issue with the battery of a laptop computer.
“I think in a technology world, where we have the ability to attend a meeting remotely ... I think we should embrace that, that’s basically the brilliance of technology,” Blais said.
However, Councilman Chris Everich voted to require physical presence at meetings, saying that the use of technology to attend meetings could limit the interaction between the public and town officials.
“A lot of communication is verbal, a lot of communication is physical, so I think the citizens have a right to be able to directly address their representative at the table; you can’t do that virtually,” he said.
Councilman Scott Strong, who also opposed virtual attendance, said he was open to the idea but believes council votes should be conducted in person.
“We found a problem with technology when we tried to use it [in July],” he said. “We tried something new and what happened? The link dropped out, it came back on, and then it was gone, and so, therefore, then what do we do? Stop the meeting?...”
Councilman Peter Helt said the use of technology to attend meetings could be useful in the future but not now.
"Maybe we will get there some day, but for me I don't think we are there yet," Helt said.
However, Blais said that the council conducts other business using virtual communication, including email, and questioned whether that act should be banned as well.
“We’ve been asked within the last month to have a consensus where there was a contested issue via email....,” he said. “So if we want to go down that road where attendance is considered physical, then at the same time business should not be conducted via email. We should be conducting business in the open.”
“Sometimes there are things with email [about] stuff [where people will] say ‘Here’s what I want to do, anyone got a problem with it?’ It’s not something we really need to vote on it just really an update,” Helt said.
Blais said that if a council member was ill for an extended period, technology could help the member participate in meetings.
“I have to say that I disagree with this [motion],” Blais said of the ban. “Reason being if we end up having an individual council member, let’s say for instance they get sick, and under doctors’ orders they are basically placed on bed rest ... should that council member at that point be faulted, should they not be allowed to attend the meeting because they are placed on bed rest?”
“I don’t think we do anything at this table that’s life threatening that would be imperative for somebody to be here....,” said Mayor Patrick Rockinberg, who could not vote on the rule. “I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but just remember we aren’t doing anything life threatening.”
Elsewhere in the area, Frederick Alderman Shelly Aloi said the board does not have a policy about members virtually attending meetings.
“We have [used virtual attendance] for workshops ... but not for meetings where we vote,” she said.
Frederick County Commissioner Paul Smith said he is not aware of a policy on virtual meeting attendance for the commissioners.
“I don’t think the Board of Commissioners has a policy on those,” he said.
Although, as a member of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, which meets in Washington, D.C., Smith said he has the option of using Skype to attend those meetings.
“Even though that option is available, I don’t want to use that because I want to go down there and see people face to face,” he said.
This article was corrected to properly identify Councilman Scott Strong.