Remote Meetings: the New Normal for Associations

The Covid-19 crisis has brought about a sea change in the way things work in our society, but for Associations in particular, the changes will be seen in the way they will have to operate for at least the next year or perhaps two. That is, at least until a working vaccine is discovered and most of us can take advantage of it. I mean, no matter what our government says, or even what our most brilliant doctors and scientists say, how long will it take for each of us to really feel comfortable congregating in a relatively small meeting place area with a hundred, fifty or even twenty five of our neighboring unit owners to decide on a budget, a new board, or a badly needed capital improvement project? Probably a long time, yes, and so for the time being, the new normal will be that Association meetings are done remotely with the use of the latest technology. 

While it will be relatively easy to implement new technology to set up virtual meetings for say annual or budget meetings, the age-old problem of notice, opportunity to be heard, inclusion, etc., will still need to be addressed.

Since budget meetings are critical for the fiscal health of an Association, I’ve included below one of the first remote meeting notices that I’ve seen implemented. Here is a budget meeting notice published in the April 17, 2020 Providence Journal, sent out by the North Providence Town Council, parts of which I’ve paraphrased:

TOWN OF NORTH PROVIDENCE-NOTICE

A PUBLIC HEARING ON THE 2020/2021 BUDGET WILL BE HELD ON APRIL 28, 2020, AT 6:00 P.M.

Join Zoom Meeting: http……….

Dial by your location

+1 312-…-….

Meeting ID: 297……..

The following is a summary of the proposed budget for the operation of the various departments and agencies for the fiscal year July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021 submitted to the Town Council of the Town of North Providence, by Mayor Charles Lombardi in accordance with Article 5 of the North Providence Town Charter, as amended.

Mary Ann De Angelus, Town Clerk

Note above that the meeting will be held virtually via Zoom.com, in which the host, here, the Town Council, through the Town Clerk, has extended an invitation to any Town resident to join the meeting from their homes and on their laptops. To participate in the meeting, the citizens may call in on the specified number to give their input, and if, applicable, vote. This reminds me of the game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, where a contestant is asked a question, and if he or she does not know the answer, can choose a help option of Asking the Audience. And there, each audience member, the town resident by analogy, simply texts their answer from their phones, and the recipient, here, the Town Council, can get feedback or votes from the community.

By analogy, an Executive Board could hold a meeting virtually, invite each unit owner to join, listen and see the debate on a budget, and then, where applicable, give input and ultimately vote. Ditto for elections and other Association business.

In the Providence Journal article, the Notice includes a letter from the Mayor, Charles Lombardi, no relation, together with the proposed budget. Naturally, for our Association meeting, the Board would have to send out any communication and budget information as well. Should there be an election, perhaps an address by the aspiring board member with his or her credentials could be included as well.

No doubt there will be growing pain this new normal procedure. For instance, some unit owners will not have computers and will not be able to participate. Perhaps the proxy voting bylaws may have to be tweaked to accommodate those that cannot participate remotely.

The right to vote and to participate in community association affairs is fundamental, and, as such, must be protected.  During the crisis, we’ve received dozens of calls from Board members concerning whether or not to hold annual meetings or budget meetings and the like. We’ve recommended postponing these meetings by and large until the crisis abates. Lately, since it does not look like the crisis will subside anytime soon, we’ve urged the Boards to consider implementing remote access meetings as soon as they are able.

Our caveats are similar to those raised by civil rights advocates when town and state officials sought to limit or suspend public meetings. For example, in response to Governor Raimondo suspending the open meetings law due to the Covid-19 crisis and the need for social distancing, Steven Brown from the RI affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and John Marion from Common Cause Rhode Island wrote to the governor with suggestion which I paraphrase from another recent article in the Providence Journal, published on March 22, 2020

Both gentlemen acknowledged in their letter that is extraordinary time  for state a local governments as they cope with the COVID-19 outbreak, and while they agree that during such time there is a need to relax some safeguards in the RI Open Meetings Act, they suggested some tweaks which I paraphrase as follows:

Should audio video coverage of a meeting be interrupted, the presiding official should suspend discussion until audio or video is restored.

When operating remote meetings by video conference, all participating members of the meeting must be clearly visible and audible to the other members at all times relevant to the meeting.

The presiding official should announce the names of any members of the body participating remotely. If only audio is provided, anyone speaking should repeat their names before making their remarks.

All votes should be conducted by roll call so that those following by video or audio are aware of how each member of the board or body voted.

Any document presented to the public body at the meeting should, if possible be put on the website of the public body prior to the start of the public meeting.

The public body should record all meetings and make the recording available on a public website on a timely basis.

With the above analogy in mind, we submit that Executive Board members would do well to keep the above safeguards in mind when conducting remote meetings. We are aware that there inevitably will be glitches. For instance, how to ensure privacy in voting. In the above scenario, the public is entitled to know how a public board member voted. That is not often necessarily the case with votes for Executive Board members, and, in fact, confidentiality should be protected.

Our law firm will shortly be making recommendations to our Association clients to amend their bylaws to accommodate remote meetings, and we will surely incorporate the civil rights safeguards and principals set forth above, and we urge other community association practitioners to do so as well.