Phoning it in? |

Phoning it in?

Whether it be for adverse weather conditions or medical reasons, members of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency governing board no longer have to be physically present at their monthly meetings to participate in discussions or cast a vote.

The board unanimously amended their code at their Incline Village meeting last week to allow members to participate in meetings over the phone.

“The idea is not to overuse [the teleconferencing option],” Legal Counsel Joanne Marchetta told the board at last week’s meeting. “The idea is to only use it in those circumstances where we really need it.”

With a majority of the 15-member governing board living outside of the Basin ” from San Francisco to Las Vegas ” driving over mountain passes to attend a meeting can be hazardous, agency officials said.

“Many of you have to travel here to the High Sierras,” Marchetta said. “And during the winter months, it’s sort of a throw of the dice.”

Meetings were canceled twice in 2007 because the roadways were impassible ” in one instance last February mudslides closed Highway 50. The December meeting was also canceled because of the threat of a winter storm.

The agency’s June meeting was canceled because of the chaos surrounding the Angora fire.

The agency is required to hold regular meetings on a monthly basis, and so each cancellation violates their own compact, Marchetta said.

“It’s a rule both of necessity,” she said. “It’s also a rule, frankly, of practicality.”

While teleconferencing is a widely used option for agencies and meetings across the board, communicating over the phone is much more limiting than face-to-face dialogue ” especially when the governing board faces so many controversial decisions that will directly affect the future of the lake and local communities for at least the next 20 years.

“I have to tell you one of the real challenges,” said board member Mike Weber. “You lose the connection, or you can’t hear a lot of the comments if you’re on the phone on the other end.”

When the agency canceled their meeting last February, staff made last minute arrangements for some board members to participate via teleconference where they approved a set of projects. According to agency documentation, project opponents raised a procedural challenge to the board’s approval because teleconferencing was, at the time, illegal. Last week’s code amendment validates any vote made over the phone.

“They always make important decisions,” said North Tahoe resident Theresa May Duggan. “So there’s always going to be some decision that, if there’s a teleconferencing option, will be possibly short-changed.”

At last week’s meeting, Marchetta stressed the strict conditions, or hardships, approved by the board chair or by the board member themselves, to allow for teleconferencing. Board members may call into a meeting in the case of adverse weather conditions that limit travel, medical conditions requiring convalescence or involving immobility and any instance where a governing board member is unavailable for scheduling reasons.

“This is not something we want to utilize on a frequent basis,” said board Chair Mara Bresnick. “This is unique and extraordinary circumstances that we would use this.”

In the case of a teleconference meeting, members would have to travel to remote locations in one of the five counties touching the lake. The venue would be predetermined and would be open to the public. A quorum would not have to be physically present at the meeting’s location in the Tahoe Basin, but would include all members who are participating remotely.

The code amendment was drafted within the context of the California Open Meeting Law, Marchetta said.

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