A Cohasset City Council member has been participating in meetings while wintering in California by using the video conferencing software Skype.
Minnesota Public Radio News reported Wednesday that Dennis Blankensop spends four months each winter in Palm Springs, Calif. Last week, the state decided that Blankensop could attend council meetings in his northeastern Minnesota hometown via Skype and can even cast votes without violating the state's open meeting laws.
Blankensop said he asked himself last year, before he ran for reelection, if the arrangement was fair to constituents. He said after discussing the issue with the town's mayor and city attorney, they decided to try Skype.
"My argument basically was, if (constituents) want to talk to me, then all they have to do is come to the council meeting, and interact with me via Skype," Blankensop told MPR.
While legal under state statute, the use of Skype is putting Blankensop and the town on the front lines of a growing debate over technology and democratic participation. He's not the only Minnesota councilmember to use such an arrangement: in the town of Fifty Lakes, 60 miles southwest of Cohasset, Councilmember Les Degner has also used Skype to attend meetings during a two-month stay in North Carolina.
In April, the Fifty Lakes Council will discuss whether Mayor Ken Hersey can vote via Skype during a month-long stay in Arizona. City Clerk Karen Stern said she sees pros and cons.
"Sometimes you can float in and out of the conversation, a couple words could be lost," Stern said. "And sometimes it's nice to have the person there to get the vibes off, or the feeling that they portray on a particular subject just by body language."
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspapers Association and expert on the state's open meetings law, said he questions whether Skype participation in meetings conforms to a provision in state statute that all participants in public meetings be at a location that's "open and accessible to the public."
"I don't think it's really appropriate to say that somebody sitting in an apartment or condo in California is accessible to the public," Anfinson said. He also wonders about the long-term effect on the democratic process.
"It's almost hard to articulate, but I think there's something important about elected representatives being physically accessible and present with their constituents," Anfinson said. He questioned whether, for instance, a city council could get away with holding a meeting where a majority of members were participating via Skype.
Cohasset officials don't see a problem.
"My thinking is, it's the 21st century; let's do this," said Mayor Greg Hagy.
"You can talk to them. They can talk to you. He can see them, and they can see him. I just don't see any difference between actually sitting there with the four outher council members, or interacting in that way," Hagy said. "I just don't have a problem with it. I think it's working great."
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