Can elected officials not attend in person if they can Skype?

Published 9:21 am Thursday, March 28, 2013

By Dan Kraker
Minnesota Public Radio News

DULUTH — The use of video conferencing software by a City Council member to attend meetings raises questions about how elected officials should face their constituents.

Dennis Blankensop, a council member 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, he cast his first vote using Skype since the state decided last week that video conferencing does not violate the open meetings law. Its use, however, puts Cohasset at the front lines of a growing debate over technology and democratic participation.

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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 a discussion with Cohasset Mayor Greg Hagy and consulting the city attorney, Blankensop said they decided to try Skype, an Internet video-conferencing service.

“My argument basically was, if they (constituents) want to talk to me, then all they have to do is come to the council meeting, and interact with me via Skype,” he said.

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

Minnesota law 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.

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