Local school board members can attend meetings digitally, so long as there is a physical quorum, under a plan that has passed both chambers of the Legislature.
The House on Thursday passed HB2883, which allows local school districts to adopt a policy, outlined in the bill, allowing members to attend meetings and vote via video conferencing technology. The bill states that such a policy would only allow members to participate digitally if they are out of the county for work, a family emergency or military service.
The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, passed two weeks ago by a vote of 26-6.
On the House floor Thursday, the bill provoked a lengthy debate between legislators, with several saying it started the state down a “slippery slope” when it comes to allowing elected officials to shirk their duties.
House sponsor and Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the bill’s intent is not to give officials a way to avoid their obligations, but rather to fulfill them.
“It’s sort of gotten to the negative sense that what we’re trying to do is give excuses to those that have been elected to school boards not to show up,” he said. “It is just the opposite. It is a situation where, for instance, some member of a school board has a sick mother in Chattanooga and is faced with being at her side rather than at the meeting of the school board. It gives them the opportunity to do their duty.”
Still, some legislators said the bill would allow officials to avoid controversial issues and difficult votes.
“There’s probably nothing more contentious on the local level than a school board meeting because we’re talking about issues that affect our children,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Germantown. “So, if an issue comes up, this could be construed or used in a way where a member doesn’t want to show and face his [constituents] and use this as an excuse.”
Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, also raised a concern about the potentially slippery slope and asked Fitzhugh if he would favor allowing such a policy in the future for state legislators.
“I would not,” Fitzhugh responded. “But, you know, I think at one point, this video thing will be so refined that we may be able to have a session whereby we are in our home counties. I’m not advocating that. I won’t live that long. But, I think possibly, someday we might.”
While legislators are required to vote in person, it is not uncommon to see a member leave the chamber and ask his neighbor on the floor to vote for him. Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, rose to support the bill and suggested that members were contradicting themselves by engaging in such activity, while insisting that other elected officials should not be allowed to participate in meetings electronically.
“I think what we have to remember is, to some extent, we do this every day,” he said, admitting that he was guilty of the same. “When we’re not under the rule, we ask our voting partners to vote us while we step out and go get a Coke or whatever we do. In many cases we do the very same thing that we’re now saying we don’t want to allow [anybody] else to do.”
The bill eventually passed, 58-35, with Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, present but not voting.
After the measure passed, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, who opposed the bill, told TNReport he didn’t think Shaw’s criticism was accurate.
“Even if we get up and walk outside, I wear a hearing device, and so I’m always hearing what’s going on,” he said. “Sometimes a constituent will actually come and ask for us to step out and speak to them, and we’ll do that. That’s a whole lot different than me sitting at home, to where constituents can’t get to me.”
An amendment to the bill exempted Davidson County, in which Gotto serves. But still, he said, despite understanding Fitzhugh’s intentions, he was disappointed to see the bill pass.
“Everything the local governments do is under authority that’s given to them by the state,” said Gotto, who has also served as a member of Nashville’s Metro Council. “This is one of those cases where as a state legislator, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to give that kind of power to the locals to be able to do that, because quite frankly, I think their constituents need to have full and total access to them.”
The bill, which Fitzhugh said the state’s school board association requested and supports, leaves much of the details of such a policy up to local school districts, outlining only the circumstances in which a member would be allowed to participate digitally. An additional amendment added a requirement for the board’s chairperson to visually identify any members participating by way of video technology. The Senate now has to OK the amendment before the measure can head to the governor for approval.
At a media avail Thursday afternoon, Gov. Bill Haslam said he didn’t know about the bill, but that good government was about “the relational piece of being there in person to do it.”
“I participate in board meetings, sometimes, over video and you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of understanding the context of what’s happening.”