Friday, May 22, 2009

Town Meeting Remote Participation

This is a photo of the computer screen of a 2009 Middlesex Town Meeting remote participant. Yes, it's true! This person was able to participate from home, by watching a video of the meeting, seeing a live chat feed, and calling in to add his voice.

Our fabulous panelist from the 2008 Snelling Center e-State Symposium, Greg Whitchurch, recently sent me some information about this year's Middlesex Town Meeting. Middlesex is working hard to help residents participate in Town Meeting even if they can't make it to the physical location.

This work could be used as a model for other towns looking to use technology to make Town Meeting more inclusive.

"At this year’s meeting, Middlesex voters experienced a first: During traditional floor discussion, the microphone was passed to a telephone, whereby a voter who was participating from home due to medical issues was able to voice his opinion.

Middlesex’s Remote Town Meeting Participation Task Force is working to facilitate town meeting participation by those who physically cannot attend (such as those with limited mobility, or who are abroad in the military), while maintaining an efficient and vibrant town meeting for those who are in the meeting room. How does Middlesex feel about the idea? The response from those attending town meeting offers a hint: the room burst into spontaneous applause.

Remote town meeting participation in Middlesex would not have been achieved without hours of volunteer effort by Greg Whitchurch, along with Lauri Scharf, Chris Reilly, and valuable support from John Riley. Thanks to VITL in Montpelier for the loan of the conference phone. With a web link, a two-way visual connection was also available."

The above image is one I pulled from Greg's photos of the meeting. Here is a link to a web album with this one and more.

Thank you, Greg, for your good work on the Middlesex Town Meeting!


Susan said...

I’ve been working with Greg on this Middlesex project, and I want to second the motion that the efforts of Greg and his tech group are terrific. They spent many hours researching and preparing, and the folks who were able to attend from home were especially appreciative. As one remote participant wrote, “Greg had the interest, knowledge, contacts and was willing to commit the time and energy to put everything together and we are the benefactors of the very positive outcome.”

I’m also the Town Moderator in Middlesex, and I just want to make sure a few things are clear to other towns that might want to try this.

First, voting. Be careful. We checked with the Secretary of State’s Office, and at the moment, the deal is this: there is some legal precedent for a person to be able to vote over the phone (e.g. a selectboard can get a quorum by phoning a member at home). However, a person’s vote can’t be conveyed by another person – that would be surrogate voting. So the voter at home can say, “turn up the speaker phone – I want to say ‘aye’ on this voice vote.” But if the vote is by show of hands, the voter can’t say, “raise your hand ‘yes’ for me.” Likewise, if the vote goes to paper ballot, the home voter can’t ask someone to cast a ballot for him or her.

Second, a traditional town meeting is a special thing. Our town deeply values the community building and richer understanding of people’s positions that face-to-face contact brings. Ironically, if we were so successful in our technological advances that everyone in town could attend town meeting from home, we would have completely defeated the purpose of our efforts to be inclusive. At the moment, there are financial and logistical barriers to this becoming a reality, but it won’t always be that way. We don’t intend for the “attend from home” option to be used like an absentee ballot (anyone can use it whenever they feel like it) but more like a handicapped parking sticker (available for those with a proven need). Making this clear in our town policies is on the “to-do” list, and we’d welcome people’s suggestions on this front.
Susan Clark, Middlesex

Karyn Vogel said...

Hi Susan,

Thank you so much for writing in to follow up. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your willingness to share your ideas and experiences. Are there any other Vermont towns working on remote town meeting or is Middlesex the first?