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Policy gives school trustees ‘leeway’ on being there

Physical presence only required for three board meetings a year

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees will only have to physically attend three board meetings per year under a new policy statement setting out the ground rules for participating by phone or the Internet.

Based on provisions in the Education Act, the rules require the board to make electronic participation available to trustees for all board and committee meetings “in a manner that allows the participating member to hear and be heard.”

Trustees who do so must inform the meeting’s chair of every time they join or leave the meeting.

Board chair Jessica Brennan said the rules are intended to avoid some of the hiccups in the past year, including at a September meeting where past chair Tim Simmons had to repeatedly ask Alex Johnstone, trustee for wards 11 and 12, if she could hear him.

Ensuring trustees can hear and be heard will allow them to take part in debate, rather than just be there to vote, she said.

“You should be open to having your opinion or your decision changed,” she said. “And, of course, it’s awkward if the individual having something to say, through the electronic mechanism, is not being heard by the people in the room.”

Brennan said the policy statement is taken directly from the Education Act, which only requires trustees to be physically present for three meetings a year, a provision generally used by northern school boards where trustees live far apart.

She said whether that minimum is acceptable here is up to individual trustees and the voters who elect them, but she’s participated in meetings electronically in other capacities and still prefers being in the room.

“It did feel somewhat to me as a bit of a disadvantage not to be able to see body language, but I think I’m one of those people who reads body language,” she said.

Trustees unanimously approved the new policy statement in December, but not without criticism from Lillian Orban, who said she’s concerned it might be abused.

“It bothers me that this legislation here now gives all kinds of leeway to trustees not to attend. In other words, you could participate but you’re absent,” the Ward 7 representative said.

“A trustee could be double-dipping, in terms of having a job elsewhere and when it comes to two three hours (for a meeting), they phone in and participate, but are absent physically. How do you monitor that?” she said.

“I think that the community would like to see that important interaction at the table.”

East Mountain trustee Laura Peddle, who phoned in for three successive board meetings in November and December, said electronic participation isn’t perfect but does let a trustee who can’t be on hand vote on important issues.

She called in fromTexas– leading Orban to sarcastically refer to her as “my colleague fromTexas” at one meeting – reflecting a romantic change in her life that won’t see her run for re-election, she said.

Peddle said while the Education Act provisions may have been intended to address boards where trustees must travel long distances to meet, technology is allowing them to be applied at all boards.

She became her board’s first trustee to participate electronically when she phoned in from Hawaii while on vacation in February.

“It certainly gives me, in my personal situation, the flexibility to finish off this year by winding it down and finishing off my mandate, and also pursuing my new life at the same time,” Peddle said.

“It’s there for a different reason, but I think it’s great that for critical decisions you can still participate while also having your life. I don’t think in Hamilton that it would be as acceptable to the general population if I continued to do this on an ongoing basis, but I won’t be.”

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