Peddle experience raises practical, security issues
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is studying how to best allow trustees to join meetings by phone and other communications technology after a patchy trial run by Mountain trustee Laura Peddle.
Governance committee chair Jessica Brennan said the review will seek to set out the ground rules for electronic participation based on provincial legislation and survey the practices at other boards.
The issue arose after Peddle was initially rebuffed when she asked to join the Feb. 25 board meeting via smartphone from Hawaii, where she was on vacation.
Trustees relented after being told the Education Act allowed her participation and the Ward 6 trustee also joined a March 4 meeting via smartphone from Texas.
Brennan, trustee for Dundas, acknowledged the lack of a consistent audio hookup and other glitches made it difficult for observers to hear Peddle at times, violating one of the rules of the Education Act.
A trustee had to hold up a smartphone to let the chair see Peddle’s votes at the Feb. 25 meeting and her voice was barely audible. A laptop connection at the March 4 meeting offered a better audio feed, but still had interruptions.
“I do know there have been some technological challenges in making it happen,” Brennan said. “It seems to have required somebody to hold somebody else’s cell phone and that’s demanding quite a bit.”
According to Education Act regulations, trustees have the right to join meetings “through electronic means” on request and their participation must allow them to hear and be heard by all others present.
The chair, at least one other trustee and the education director must also be physically present at the meeting.
But several boards set their own guidelines. The Toronto public board, for instance, limits participation to land phone lines. Cellular and other portable phones are forbidden.
Board chair Tim Simmons said the use of cell phones is a security issue because it’s possible others may hear the conversation if the meeting goes behind closed doors.
He said the governance committee has already agreed a landline connection should only be allowed in those cases.
But Simmons said the recent experience has also underscored the need to ensure the new Education Centre being built near Lime Ridge Mall is equipped to allow electronic participation.
Meetings are currently held at city hall, but the audio problems there didn’t reflect a lack of trying, he said. The system had only been set up for domestic calls, but is now able to accommodate international ones as well.
“When we first trying to cobble this (together), I believe there was about seven city staff plus a number of our staff working together to try and get this to work,” Simmons said. “They really tried their best.”
While some may question if participating by phone is the same as being there, Simmons said the world has changed and board must change with it.
He noted former Ward 5 trustee Ron English took a six-month leave last term to teach in China, but could have continued his role, at least at board meetings, had the technology been in place.
English lost his seat to Todd White in the 2010 election, placing a distant third.
“It’s up to the constituents (to judge their representation), but it’s all in the open and it’s all transparent,” Simmons said. “It’s the modern age, so we have to plan for that. I’m a 20th Century baby, so what may be difficult or arduous for me may not be the same for a trustee 20 years from now.”