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Councilmember's Skype participation in meetings raises questions

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The use of video conferencing software by a councilmember to attend meetings raises questions about how elected officials should face their constituents.

Dennis Blankensop, a councilmember from the northeast Minnesota town of Cohasset has for the past couple months been "virtually" attending council meetings via Skype software from his condo in Palm Springs, Calif.

On Tuesday evening, he plans to also cast his first vote using Skype since the state decided last week that video conferencing does not violate the Open Meeting Law. Its use, however, puts Cohasset at the front lines of a growing debate over technology and democratic participation.

Blankensop spends four months every winter in sunny Palm Springs. Before he ran for re-election last year, he wondered if his absence was fair to his constituents. After discussion with Cohasset's mayor and consulting the city attorney, Blankensop said they decided to try Skype, an Internet video-conferencing service.

"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 said.

He said he is just as accessible as if he was there in person. 

Minnesota statute does allow for members to meet via "interactive television" as long as participants can see and hear one another, at least one person is present at the regular location, and each location where a member is present is open and accessible to the public. It is the last condition that concerns Minneapolis media attorney Mark Anfinson, general counsel for the Minnesota Newspapers Association. He has also represented MPR.

"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."

"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.

Blankensop said that to comply with the law he posts a sign in his condo clubhouse explaining he is in a meeting that is open to the public. While the Minnesota Department of Administration has agreed Blankensop is complying with the state statute, Anfinson wonders about the effects 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.

Cohasset officials, though, don't see it that way. 

"My thinking is, it's the 21st century; let's do this, "said Cohasset Mayor Greg Hagy.

"You can talk to them. They can talk to you. He can see them, and they can see him. So I just don't see any difference between actually sitting there with the four other council members, or, interacting in that way," Hagy said. "I just don't have a problem with it. I think it's working great."

Sixty miles southwest of Cohasset, the town of Fifty Lakes is also experimenting with Skype. City Clerk Karen Stern says city councilmember Les Degner, who spends two months in North Carolina during the winter, used it this year.

"At the last meeting, our council member that was out of town had some more information on a topic we happened to discuss that possibly was valuable to some people," Stern said. "So it was nice to have him there."

But Stern says 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."

Fifty Lakes Mayor Ken Hersey is leaving for Arizona for a month, Stern said, and that the city council will take up the issue at its next meeting in April to decide whether Hersey can vote while he is away.

Other cities across the country are also grappling with the issue. Escondido, Calif., recently voted not to allow city council members to take part in meetings via Skype. But League City, Texas just had their first council member participate using Skype, from Washington, D.C.

Anfinson supports the technology for occasional use, for instance in bad weather. The deeper concern in Minnesota, he said, is the possibility that several members could be away for long stretches in the winter.

"The 'snowbird caucus' could be most of the meeting, and one poor guy stuck there to deal with the constituents," Anfinson said.

Blankensop doesn't think that is realistic, and calls his situation "unique." He says he is "accessible to the residents of Cohasset 24-7," and a phone call away.

Or, at the city council meeting tonight, just a Skype connection away.