Board votes to allow remote participation

NASHUA – Three months to the day after an alderman cast a critical vote via a telephone call, the board of aldermen Tuesday passed a policy governing future remote voting by board members.

Attempts at defining or restricting such votes kicked around the personnel/administrative affairs committee for several meetings, yielding two separate ordinances: one the board indefinitely postponed Tuesday, and the other the board passed after substantive changes.

The final ordinance, through an amendment by Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy, expressly permits board members to participate in meetings “by electronic or other means of communications,” as long as the participation meets the provisions of state law.

McCarthy’s amendment struck out a clause that would allow the board by either a two-thirds or simple majority vote to determine whether absent members could participate on a case-by-case basis.

Ward 2 Alderman Dick LaRose called requiring a board vote to allow an absent member to participate in a meeting “very undemocratic.”

It made no sense that members of the public would be free to speak at meetings, but a vote would be needed to allow an alderman to represent his constituents, LaRose said.

LaRose was at the crux of the Sept. 23 vote on the Broad Street Parkway that set the issue into motion.

To the surprise of many board members that night, LaRose, who was ill and recuperating at Greenbriar Terrace in Nashua, was allowed to take part in the meeting over a speakerphone.

His vote was crucial as the board met the two-thirds majority needed to approve a $37.6 million bond to design and construct the long-debated and controversial cross-city roadway.

Opponents of the parkway cried foul, saying they weren’t informed in advance that a new state law would be employed to permit LaRose to vote. That law gives local boards the option of allowing an absent member to participate in a meeting “by electronic or other means of communication for the benefit of the public and the governing body.”

On Tuesday night, Alderman-at-Large David Deane discussed LaRose’s vote that night by alluding to oft-quoted lines from two famous movies.

First, Deane suggested that his opposition to LaRose voting via speakerphone wasn’t personal, just business, paraphrasing the line from “The Godfather.”

Then Deane more directly quoted from “Cool Hand Luke” when he said that the two proposed ordinances before the board “were predicated on ‘a failure to communicate.’ ”

Some aldermen objected that they weren’t told LaRose would vote in that September meeting, and it didn’t matter if the issue was the Broad Street Parkway or just a stop sign.

Deane was among the five board members who opposed the parkway bond.

Alderman-at-Large Fred Teeboom said committee discussions tried to do the opposite of McCarthy’s amendment – to not allow participation without attaching conditions.

Some members worried that politicking would come into play, or that a board member could abuse the new law by opting to vote by phone rather than attend meetings.

An earlier version of the ordinance said a member would only be allowed to vote remotely if he was absent from the meeting for medical reason.

The final ordinance was approved 10-3, with board members Deane, Teeboom and Ward 8 Alderman Dave MacLaughlin opposing it. Ward Aldermen Michael Tamposi Jr. and Michael Tabacsko were absent.

To participate in future meetings, absent board members still would have to follow provisions of the state law. One provision requires that the member’s voice be clearly heard by the board and by the public in the meeting room. Also, the absent member would be required to state who was with him at his location.