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Cromer might meet with council from home

October 03, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer might take part in city council meetings from home for several weeks while recovering from neck surgery.

"I have been in constant pain for quite a while," she said Monday. "I have three herniated discs in my neck, compressing on a nerve to my right arm."

She said she was told she could lose the use of her arm, so on Thursday, at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, she's having surgery she has put off for a while. She said doctors will replace herniated discs with discs from a cadaver and put in a steel plate.

Cromer wants to take part in council meetings while at home recovering for six to eight weeks. "That's my responsibility, that's my duty," she said. "I take that duty very seriously."

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"We're going to try to figure out a way," Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said.

Cromer, an attorney, said other lawyers, including Gordon Lynn, have offered to help her with cases while she recovers.

Maryland's Open Meetings Act seems to allow Cromer's request.

"Although the presence of a quorum in the same room would ordinarily characterize a 'meeting,' joint physical presence is not a prerequisite to the convening of a meeting," an Open Meetings Act Manual says.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General William Varga said live interactions - such as phone calls, video conferences and instant message sessions - are considered meetings. The public must be able to see and hear what those on the government body see and hear.

Cromer's situation is on today's council meeting agenda as an executive session item. It is listed as: "to consult with counsel to obtain legal advice."

Varga said the council may get a legal opinion from its attorney, but can't discuss the matter beyond that in executive session.

City Attorney Mark Boyer declined to comment Monday.

Besides Hagerstown, only the city of Salisbury has asked Maryland Municipal League about an official taking part in meetings from afar, said Jim Peck, the league's director of research. "With today's technology, it allows for full participation," he said.

A few years ago in Salisbury, an ill council member asked about participating by telephone, City Clerk Brenda Colegrove said. More recently, a council member who expected to be out of town requested the same thing.

Both times, remote participation wasn't allowed. Colegrove said the city's code requires council members to be present for meetings.

Hagerstown's charter appears more lenient. It only says the council "shall meet" regularly and publicly.

Former Mayor Steven T. Sager, who was visiting City Hall on Monday, said he remembers being on vacation in Vermont and swearing in a board member by phone.

The city of Frostburg, Md., where he recently worked, had a council member vote once or twice from afar, he said.

In May, when the Washington County Board of Education discussed a synthetic-turf field for North Hagerstown High School, board member Jacqueline B. Fischer participated and voted from home through a conference call.

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