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Jim Kenyon: Too Much Screen Time in Norwich

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

During his first 10 months in office, Norwich Selectboard member John Langhus showed up for board meetings only about half the time.

In person, that is.

Langhus, an attorney for a renewable energy company, is a product of the digital age. Video conferencing — e.g. FaceTime and Skype — is a tool of his trade that he’s brought to public office.

When Langhus is out of town on business, a frequent occurrence last year, he often fires up his laptop and beams himself into Selectboard meetings. Back at Tracy Hall, Town Manager Herb Durfee stations his laptop on a table so Langhus can participate in discussions and cast votes — just like board members on the scene.

I get that video chatting is all the rage. It’s a great way to keep in touch with the grandkids on the other side of the country.

And I don’t blame Langhus and John Pepper, another board member who occasionally participates remotely, for not always wanting to be in the room.

It must get tiresome hearing the town’s landed gentry — many of whom appear to have come right off the set of Downton Abbey — railing against changing the “town plan” because they fear it could promote unseemly development. (Code for affordable housing.)

That said, I’m still not sure that video chatting or teleconferencing — another way that Langhus and Pepper sometimes participate — lend themselves to good government.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to see my elected officials perform their public duties in the flesh and blood.

“It is suboptimal,” Langhus acknowledged when we talked face-to-face last week. “You can’t read body language.”

But Langhus and Pepper told me that it has more pluses than minuses. A big advantage: People such as themselves, who have jobs that require travel, can still be active in municipal politics.

Langhus and Pepper, both 40-somethings and the youngest members on the five-member board, were elected last Town Meeting. Pepper, a Dartmouth College and Tuck School of Business graduate, is co-founder of the burrito company Boloco. Langhus, at the time of his election last March, was vice president at solar developer Norwich Technologies. Since then, he’s become vice president of business development and general counsel at New Energy Equity in Annapolis, Md.

At last Wednesday’s four-hour board meeting, which he attended in-person, Langhus waxed on about why he moved to Norwich. A “relative newcomer,” Langhus said, he and his family were drawn to the “small town with an accountable democracy.”

In the not-so-distant future, “people all over the country will look to Norwich and ask how (they) ever get back to that.”

Part of any small town’s strength is the ability for residents to converse face-to-face with their selectboard members before, during and after meetings. There’s more to serving on a governing board in a small Vermont town than showing up at Town Meeting in a flannel shirt and Bean boots.

The issue of virtual attendance (I picked up the term on a techie website) wouldn’t have come up, if not for resident Pam Smith. Why should the public have to put up with distorted audio and small screens that make meetings difficult to follow just to accommodate elected officials’ work schedules, she asked.

“I was kind of appalled that everyone thought it was normal,” Smith said. “Don’t sign up for something and then give it short shrift.”

Technology glitches aside, “there’s a totally different dynamic when someone is Skyping instead of being there,” Smith said. “It takes the personal aspect away.”

Smith, 66, sifted through board minutes to get attendance records. Her research showed that between his election in March and the end of December, Langhus was off-site for 10 of the 22 board meetings (45 percent) that he participated in. Pepper went remote three times.

In late December, Smith sent the information to the board in hopes that it would become an agenda item at a future meeting.

In an email, board member Steve Flanders reminded Chairwoman Mary Layton that state law allows members to participate without being physically present. He opposed putting it on the agenda, but Layton indicated that it might be an appropriate discussion closer to Town Meeting.

Langhus, who isn’t up for re-election until 2019, told me he’ll leave it up to voters. He expects, however, that his travel schedule will lighten up this year, so he’ll be attending more meetings in person. He made both January meetings.

I stopped by a couple of other town offices this week to find out whether government-by-remote had established a foothold. While not yet into video conferencing, Woodstock spent a couple of hundred dollars last year to upgrade its phone system so board members could participate more easily by phone.

Now that Woodstock has a reliable call-in system, it could “help increase the applicant pool” for town boards, Municipal Manager Phil Swanson said.

Residents who were reluctant to serve because, for example, they’re in Florida for a month in the winter, might now be willing, Swanson said. “They’ll be able to contribute,” he said.

I’ve come to realize — quite grudgingly — that it might not be long before public meetings become entirely virtual.

The technology already exists. Each board member could participate remotely from their offices. The public wouldn’t have to venture anywhere near town hall. Using web conferencing software, such as GoToMeeting, residents could watch board proceedings live on their screens at home. They could send questions electronically to board members to respond to in real time.

No need for elected officials and their constituents to ever be in the same room. Except maybe at Town Meeting to compare flannel shirts and Bean boots.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.