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Legality of phone voting questioned

| Thursday, July 27, 2006

When former Moon Supervisor Edwin Nelson walked into a special meeting of the Moon Area School Board last month, he couldn't believe his eyes.

Of nine chairs set out for board members, only four were occupied. With Jeffrey Bussard and Mary Tobin voting by phone, the board approved a $50.9 million budget. The move passed 5-1. But Nelson wondered about the legality of the phone votes.

"They kept claiming the meeting was illegal," Nelson said.

Tobin cast the lone dissenting vote. Absent from the June 28 meeting were Peggy Bell, Mark Scappe and Lisa Wolowicz. Like Bussard and Tobin, Bell attended the meeting via phone, but disconnected before the budget vote.

Voting by phone is legal, but there is a question about whether the board met a state school code requirement that a quorum -- or a majority of board members -- be present for the meeting, said Teri Henning, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association.

"There's at least a question as to whether this means physical presence," Henning said. "The word 'presence' in the school code suggests physical presence.The question is how would a court interpret that."

Scappe said former solicitors informed him that a quorum required "five physical bodies" present at the meeting.

Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokesman Scott Shewell said telephone votes don't violate state statues "as long as (members) are present by telephone and have a policy in place."

Board President Mark Limbruner said that though the board does not have a written policy on phone votes, board members previously have voted by telephone.

Former board member Greg Meiers, an airline pilot, "voted more than a few times" by phone when his job took him out of town, Limbruner said. Another board member, Samuel Tranter, who was called to active duty with the 911th Air Force Reserve, voted by phone from the Middle East, Limbruner said.

Scappe said he asked for a different date for last month's budget vote, but was rejected. He said both he and Bussard told board members that they would be out of town on business June 28 and Bell said she had surgery scheduled for that week and would be unable to attend.

People interested in challenging the legality last month's meeting have 30 days -- or until Friday -- to file a challenge in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Nelson said he has no plans to do so.

Scappe said he did not know if anyone else was interested in challenging the legality of the meeting.

Said Nelson, "In my 30 years in government, I had never seen anything like that before."

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