Town Council updates remote meeting policy for councilors

3 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — Given the continued presence of COVID-19 in the County, it came as no surprise that the Houlton Town Council has continued to make improvements to its policy for remote meetings.

The council had first approved the policy back in August, but held off on ratifying it as an ordinance so that further adjustments could be made at future meetings. The policy allows councilors to attend up to five meetings per year remotely, but more than 50 percent of council members have to remain physically present in order to achieve a quorum. 

The limit on five meetings per year for councilors had been included as a preventive measure to prevent any council member from potentially abusing the system. Councilor Sue Tortello, however, objected to the limitation, saying there were many legitimate reasons a person would need additional time off, such as taking care of a sick family member. 

“In the past, we have limited greatly how people can participate remotely, because it was only people who got cable and could watch the council meetings, and then it wasn’t a two-way street,” Tortello said. “I think we’ve opened up that option to a lot more people that can participate via Zoom, and I think we get more people who do attend the meetings virtually than they do in person.”

Councilor Eileen McLaughlin, who was herself attending Monday’s meeting remotely, acknowledged that attending via Zoom was not without its pitfalls. McLaughlin experienced audio issues during the meeting and had to switch to her mobile phone’s audio in order to speak.

“I do think this policy could be easily abused,” she said. “But I do think that there needs to be some way of there being permission, if there’s an extenuating circumstance of an illness of a family member.”

Dennis Harmon, the council member who had proposed the five-meeting limit, suggested a compromise in which the limit would not apply to articles A, B and C of the policy, which includes emergency issues and the town going remote in case of further COVID-19 surge. The other councilors approved of this addition. 

“I think if we add that at the end, that would address the concerns, yet still keeps the integrity of what the intent of this was to stop the possible abuse,” Harmon said.