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Should Greenport ZBA members be allowed to participate via Skype?

George Hubbard

The phrase “phoning it in” generally has a negative connotation. But what about “Skyping it in?”

That’s the question confronting Greenport Village officials. 

At a recent village Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, board chairman Douglas Moore indicated he would be away for three monthly meetings in the winter and asked if he could participate via Skype, an Internet video chat program.

Resident Bob Kehl, whose neighborhood has two controversial applications coming before the ZBA, raised the issue at Monday’s meeting of the Village Trustees.

“There are a lot of people [angry] about this,” he said. “Anywhere you go, the House of Representatives or the Senate, you can’t Skype in votes or Skype in a meeting. If you’re going to be there, you’re going to be there. If you’re not going to be there, you’re not.”

Mayor George Hubbard Jr. said he had discussions with Mr. Moore, who was not at Monday night’s meeting, about how the process would work, although he said there’s no village laws or procedures pertaining to the use of Skype.

Mr. Hubbard said a board member participating via Skype could not vote. And the public would need advanced notice of the procedure.

Village Attorney Joe Prokop, who’s also the ZBA attorney, confirmed this, and said he is planning to write a legal opinion to formalize the procedure.

A similar issue made headlines in July 2014 during a Mattituck School Board meeting when a board member participated via Skype from Rochester. The board failed to elect a president at the meeting following a heated argument that included accusations of violating the state’s open meetings law.

The mayor on Monday said Mr. Moore spoke to him about the issue about a month ago.

“He asked me if I wanted him to resign or stay on, and I said no,” Mr. Hubbard said, indicating that the village is having trouble filling the five seats. “I said, ‘If you’re not gonna be here for a few months, we’ll deal with that. We got through it last year and we’ll do what we have to do.”

Former Trustee Bill Swiskey said he doesn’t think attendance by Skype should be allowed.

“When you go away for the whole winter, that’s just not acceptable,” he said.

He suggested the board consider either increasing the ZBA from five to seven members or it it’s possible to have alternate ZBA members.

Mr. Prokop said he’s “not 100 percent” if the ZBA can be increased from five to seven members, but he said the board can appoint two alternate ZBA members. However, the purpose of the alternate members is for when there’s a conflict of interest, not for when a member will be absent.

Mr. Hubbard said the board will consider increasing the size of the ZBA to seven members, if possible.

Dinni Gordon, a member of the ZBA, urged the board to allow Skype.

“I understand the limitations of Skype, but this is modern technology which is used in international agreements and we shouldn’t turn our backs on this method of extending the discussion on important decisions like zoning in the village,” she said. “He’s not going to vote, he’s not allowed to vote and none of us would’ve wanted him to vote from a distance. So that’s not an issue. But his participation, however it’s provided, adds to the richness of the debate.”

Ms. Gordon said she’d also be away for one meeting this winter and the ZBA would be limited to three members. She supported increasing the number of members to seven.

Otherwise, anything that passes would have to be a unanimous 3-0 vote.

“If you had seven people, that will be much much less likely to happen,” she said.

John Saladino, another ZBA member, also backed the Skype method.

“I think it be counterproductive not to have him [Mr. Moore] hear the debate when certain applications come before the board,” he said.

He said Mr. Moore agreed he couldn’t vote via Skype.

Mr. Saladino opposed increasing the size of the ZBA.

“I think the problem is, we live in an area that gets cold in the winter and people just want to get out of here,” Mr. Saladino said. “You could have 17 members on the ZBA, and chances are eight or nine of them going south for the winter.”

According to Mr. Prokop, the state Public Officers Law addresses video conferencing.

It states: “A public body that uses videoconferencing to conduct its meetings shall provide an opportunity for the public  to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates.”

It also states: “If the public body will hold the meeting via videoconference, the notice must indicate that videoconferencing will be used, identify the locations for the meeting, and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations.”

The Village Trustees made no decision on the issue Monday.

Photo Caption: Greenport Mayor George Hubbard Jr. at a planning board meeting earlier this year. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo, file)

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