Suffolk County, N.Y., Leader Sparks Videoconferencing Debate

Suffolk County legislators will return from summer recess to debate whether to allow lawmakers to videoconference into meetings — an issue touched off by one official's request to Skype into a meeting while on vacation.

by Rachelle Blidner, Newsday / August 20, 2019

(TNS) — Suffolk County, N.Y., legislators are planning to return early from their summer recess to debate whether to allow lawmakers to videoconference into meetings — an issue touched off by Legis. Susan Berland's request to Skype into committee meetings this month while on vacation in Key West, Fla.

Berland, a Huntington, N.Y., Democrat, says she has the legal right to participate in legislative committee meetings via Skype while she is away. But key county Legislature officials, including Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory and legislative counsel Sarah Simpson, have objected, saying the proper technology and rules are not yet in place.

Gregory (D-Copiague) has called a public hearing and special legislative meeting for Wednesday to discuss whether to allow legislators to videoconference into meetings.

Berland sought the videoconferencing privilege so she could participate in legislative committee meetings scheduled for the week of Aug. 26. Berland asked Gregory if she could Skype into committee meetings from the public library in Key West, where she has a second home.

One of the panels she sits on, the public safety committee, is scheduled to vote Aug. 29 on whether to extend the county’s red-light camera program for another five years. Berland’s vote could affect the outcome of the vote, said Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore).

Asked why she can't return during her vacation for committee meetings, Berland said: "We don't go away the rest of the year." She said legislative meetings are scheduled so close together that it is hard to get away at other times.

Berland, who makes $100,854 in legislative salary, said that even though she is out of town, she wants to participate in committee meetings and is in touch with her office and county residents.

“Even though I’m on vacation, I’m always representing my constituents,” she said.

Cilmi said the seven-member GOP caucus opposes Berland's request.

“Members of the legislature should not be able to vote while sitting on a beach in Belize or a chalet in Switzerland or a library in Key West,” Cilmi said.

In an Aug. 2 memo, Simpson said it would be “premature and inappropriate” to allow Berland to Skype during the upcoming committee cycle because the county Legislature does not yet have the technology for videoconferencing that complies with state law governing public meetings.

After Gregory distributed the memo to all 18 county legislators, Berland accused him of “doing all you can to prevent me from participating," according to the email exchange. Berland, who worked formerly as an attorney, said Gregory and Simpson "violated my attorney/client confidentiality by requesting this memo without my knowledge, disparaging me in this memo and then forwarding it to the Legislature without prior notification to me.

“Our technology is at a point where this request should be accommodated, but it is clear that every conceivable and fabricated excuse is being thrown against the wall,” Berland told Gregory by email.

The state Open Meetings Law allows public officials to attend and vote at meetings via videoconference, although municipalities can make their own rules. Nassau County requires its legislators to physically be in their seats to vote.

Gregory said the Suffolk Legislature first needs to establish videoconferencing rules to guard against potential abuse. He has proposed allowing legislators to vote by videoconferencing, but meetings still could not be held if there are not enough legislators physically present.

“We should get rules down for this,” Gregory said.

Simpson, who reviewed Berland’s request, said the legislature should consider videoconferencing but would need to amend its rules and upgrade technology in its auditorium. The upgrade, which is in the planning stages, could not be completed in time for the next round of committee meetings and could cost an estimated $40,000, Simpson said.

In an advisory opinion, the state Committee on Open Government said it “would be wise” not to allow videoconferencing if the Suffolk Legislature does not have the technical capacity for the public to observe all legislators at once.

Deputy Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said Berland’s determination to participate while on vacation shows “real dedication.” But he said he would want rules in place to ensure legislators attend meetings in person while they are physically in Suffolk.

The special legislative meeting to discuss videoconferencing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Aug. 21 in the Legislature's auditorium in Hauppauge.

The two emergency resolutions up for consideration each will need a supermajority of 12 votes to pass.

Berland won't be able to vote on the measures unless she attends in person. She plans to attend the Sept. 4 general legislative meeting.

©2019 Newsday.  Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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