Camden hopefuls discuss online meetings

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

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CAMDEN — Camden commissioners put into a practice a new policy last fall allowing commissioners to participate in meetings remotely when they cannot attend.

The board voted to give Commissioner Clayton Riggs permission to call-in for meetings after his government contracting job required him to work in South Carolina for several months.

Under the policy, the board had to unanimously approve the set-up. Some restrictions did apply.

Because of possible legal issues, the electronic hook-up was not allowed at quasi-judicial hearings or closed sessions on personnel and confidential legal issues. A quorum — in Camden’s case three of five board members — had to be met for a member to participate remotely.

Riggs said his job no longer requires his absence from Camden, but he did dial-up for several meetings from fall 2013 to early 2014 because he was out of town.

From May 2013 to April 2014, Riggs was physically present at five of 13 regularly scheduled meetings on video although he participated remotely in many of the meetings he missed.

Riggs said he kept in contact with citizens and commissioners through phone calls, text messages and e-mails and was routinely home on weekends to meet with residents who wanted to talk personally.

Candidates for county commissioner in the upcoming primary election were recently asked if the board should grant this option to its members in the future.

Here’s the responses from four candidates competing for two seats on the five-member board.

Shiloh seat

Commissioner Riggs said his job will no longer require him to commute to South Carolina so being absent from meetings will not be an issue.

Riggs said major corporations have long relied on teleconferences to conduct business when participants can’t be there physically. Making use of that resource is good, not bad, for Camden, he said.

“It’s an asset not a hindrance,” said Riggs.

Riggs said being away has not kept him from keeping in contact with the people he represents. Even though he was away from Camden at times, he’s spent most of his term — and his life — in the county, he noted.

“It’s far more time I have spent in the county than out of the county,” said Riggs.

He said he’s also kept up with talking to people by telephone or e-mail or in person on weekends when he was routinely home.

Riggs said he’s not alone in trying to juggle a job that takes him outside Camden. He said he’s not unlike the many residents who drive to Virginia for work each day.

“A large number of citizens commute outside the county, and I happen to be one of them,” he said.

Phil Faison, a former commissioner who is challenging Riggs for the Shiloh seat, said being a commissioner involves more than going to meetings, and that’s one reason a board member needs to be physically present. Being accessible to citizens when they have a concern is also important, he said. Not being there also places a hardship on other commissioners who must fill the vacancy at other meetings that do not offer online access, he added.

Faison said he decided to run because he can offer that accessibility.

“Shiloh needs representation,” said Faison.

He believes commissioners who miss more than three meetings in a row should discuss the issue in closed session with fellow commissioners.

If there’s not some extenuating circumstance, such as a family member in the hospital with leukemia, then the commissioner should give up his or her seat and let someone else serve, Faison said.

“If you can’t make the meetings, you should get off the board,” said Faison.

At-large seat

Commissioner Randy Krainiak said he had mixed feelings about allowing online participation at meetings because he believes commissioners should be “hands on.”

Krainiak said he thinks commissioners should consider remote attendance on a case-by-case basis. Online participation is probably not a good idea if it goes on for more than a year, he said. But he’s not sure a hard-and-fast rule should be set because each situation may be different.

In general, commissioners need to be involved in the community, which requires them to be physically present, he said.

Riggs qualified as an extenuating circumstance because his job required him to be outside the county for a short period of time, said Krainiak. As a longtime resident and family man, Riggs didn’t like being away, he added.

Tom White, who is challenging Krainiak for the at-large seat, agreed that online participation should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Having a set rule may not give commissioners the flexibility they need in unusual situations, he said.

In cases where a commissioner or family member is ill, online participation may be the best option available, he said.

White said commissioners should work with board members who need to miss a few meetings, but he doesn’t think online participation should be offered on an ongoing basis.

“I think you need to be available to people,” he said.

If a commissioner must be out of the county too often, then he or she should consider stepping down, he said.